Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Kathy Erskine wrote my favorite book of last year (and winner of the National Book Award for juvenile literature), MOCKINGBIRD. Her follow-up novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, hits shelves today.

Mike is the child of a single father, an engineer, who suddenly has to travel to Romania for work, and decides that Mike should spend the summer with aging, eccentric relatives.

Life with Poppy and Moo takes a lot of getting used to. But soon, Mike gets involved in a project -- raising money to help a local pastor adopt a child from Romania. And along the way, Mike ends up helping several other people in town, too. And he finally tells his dad that he's just not interested in math and engineering, and Dad is OK with it.

Mike is an enjoyable story, and I liked seeing him (and his father) come to the realization that people are gifted in different ways, and that having a learning disability in math doesn't mean that one will be crippled for life.

I didn't fall in love with this book the way I did with MOCKINGBIRD, though. I think Mike himself just didn't feel as real to me -- he seemed out of the ordinary for a 14-year-old boy. I don't know many 14-year-old boys who are so community-minded and relate so well to adults! Then again, I suppose he would be different, given that his father is both highly intelligent and displays many characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome (never mentioned explicitly, but it's there). Mike is used to having to take care of his absent-minded father, so he feels he has to take care of others, too.

But I and my 11-year-old daughter enjoyed reading this book, and I can recommend it!

Visit author Kathryn Erskine on the web at

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Young Adult Books: Too Dark?

I'm steaming through the ears right now, because I've just read the Wall Street Journal article in which Meghan Cox Gurdon claims that current young adult literature is too dark for most parents and kids.

I won't disagree that there's a lot of dark and paranormal "literature" out there right now. In fact, I think some of it's trash, too.

I won't disagree that books with sex, violence, or difficult subjects like rape and incest may not be appropriate for all children. I don't let my 11-year-old read these books. They're generally not intended for 11-year-olds. I don't let her read many of Lauren Myracle's books (mentioned in the article) because I don't think she's ready for them yet.

But there are several things I do disagree with in this piece.

First, the idea that one might leave a bookstore EMPTY-HANDED because there is nothing, nothing appropriate out there (which is what the mother in the beginning of the piece did). Please. There is such a rich variety of literature available for children and teenagers right now that you'd have to be in a pretty sad bookstore for that to happen. Surely you could at least come away with a selection from the classics of youth literature?

And then this:

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing.

Are you kidding me? 40, 50, 60 years ago, maybe the term Young Adult Literature didn't exist, but the books were definitely there. Look up Rosamond Du Jardin, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Betty Cavanna, among MANY others. Were they different from young adult books today? Yes. The world has changed, and so have the books.

But here's the meat of what made me angry:

By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In the parenting trade, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"

Absolutely you should use your judgment and taste in deciding what YOUR children should read. I do! But please, for the love of all that is holy, why should anyone get to decide what other people's children should read?

You're right, Ms. Gurdon. There are a lot of books out there that I don't want my children to read. But I'm perfectly capable of drawing those boundaries for myself, even if my boundaries are different from yours.

By the way, your lists of books for young men and young women? I certainly hope my daughters will be reading from BOTH categories. Just saying.