I know I read and liked at least the first two of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” books when I was a kid, but I hadn’t thought of them in ages. Then I read this piece by Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker website, in which she describes the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, as a book with “a surfeit of heart and an absence of sentiment,” and describes the style of the trilogy as being like “Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges.” Clearly I needed to go get the first book from the library. I read it over the course of two days and found the absurd humor of it pretty pleasing, though I probably liked it more as a kid than I do as an adult.

The book consists of thirty chapters/stories, each of which is named for one or more of the students and teachers at the imaginary school of the title (mostly the students and teachers from one particular class). The school is a bit odd: it was meant to have thirty classrooms on one floor but it was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom per story: “The builder said he was very sorry” (9). The builder is also sorry for having accidentally skipped from the 18th floor to the 20th, but the school’s loss is the reader’s gain: one of my favorite chapters in the book is about that missing 19th floor. Wayside School is odd in other ways, as well: in the first (and very memorable) chapter, a mean teacher turns students into apples; in another chapter, we get to ponder what ice cream that tastes like a particular person might be like. There are creepy bits and kind of mean bits and clever bits. Highlights for me included a chapter where illiterate bank robbers try to rob the school and a character gets revenge on the boastful kid who sits behind him, a chapter where a kid who draws a lot of pictures very quickly during art class learns about the idea of quality over quantity, a chapter in which a kid goes up and down thirty flights of stairs more times than he would like, a chapter with a mysterious interrogation in it, and a chapter in which a student says she’s too distracted by her itchy mosquito bites to do math. That mosquito-bite chapter features this, which I find so charming/funny/great:

“But we have all kinds of arithmetic,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without carrying, addition with carrying, and carrying without addition.”
“I don’t care,” cried Dana.
“We have that, too,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without caring. Now, stop carrying on.” (52)

The last time I read The Dark Is Rising was more than ten years ago, in summer, and while I always love this book, there’s an extra magic in reading it during the time of year in which it’s set, in the dark and cold days of midwinter, with the festive pleasures of Christmas all around me in real life as well as in the book. This time around I probably read it a bit slower, too, because for the first two-thirds of the book I was pacing my reading for the Twitter readalong (#TheDarkIsReading), though after Christmas I couldn’t keep from just reading on: I finished the book on December 26th, totally unable to ration out the last third until the action of the book ends on Twelfth Night.

The Dark Is Rising is a fantasy quest narrative, a Chosen One narrative, and the story of a centuries-long battle between Light and Dark, all of which are fine and satisfying things, but what makes this book, for me, is the rest of it: how well-written it is, and the sense it gives of landscape, of place, and of the daily life of a large and happy family in an English village, all the ordinary sweetness of Christmas, even as the Dark threatens the everyday peace of village life. I love passages like this:

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering. (79)

Other choice Christmas phrases: at one point Cooper writes about the “enchanted expectant space” of Christmas morning (127), and then, later on Christmas Day, writes about church bells in a storm “chiming through the grey whirling world around them, brightening it back into Christmas” (139). So good.

I think it’s hard to talk about the fantasy/quest elements of the book without spoilers, or without getting bogged down in detail, so I’m not really going to try, but I will say that I love that part of the fantasy involves time-slips, where the protagonist/hero, 11-year-old Will, finds himself in the past on a number of occasions. I like the sense of history that those scenes bring, and the sense of the vast expanse of time.

The Swiss Family Robinson was originally published in German in 1812; the English translation I read is from 1814, but (as I learned from a “Did You Know?” section at the back of the book) some of it is based on sections added by the French translator, Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu: one of the most memorable episodes isn’t in Wyss’s original! I’d never read the book as a kid, or seen the movie, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect: I knew it was about a shipwrecked family who ended up building themselves a treehouse, but that was about all I could tell you about it.

As it turns out, I found The Swiss Family Robinson to be kind of a slog. The plot: a man, his wife, and their four sons (who range in age from 8 to 15) are leaving Europe on a ship that’s going to set up a new settlement far away, but the ship gets wrecked in a storm and the members of this family are the only ones left on board. The wreck ends up perched on some rocks in such a way that the family manages to survive, and also manages to save a lot of the ship’s provisions, which are both plentiful and useful. When they make their way from the rocks to an island that’s within sight, they find a landscape that turns out to be full of edible and otherwise useful plants, and also full of a fairly bewildering/nonsensical assortment of animals, many of which are also edible or otherwise useful. They proceed to set themselves up with living quarters, first right by the shore and then farther inland, where they build that treehouse; as time passes they make a number of other structures on the island, and even manage to hollow out a winter shelter inside of a cave full of crystals of salt.

The writing (at least in this translation) is more serviceable than beautiful, but my main problem with the book is that it’s narrated by the father, which has the result of making it extremely didactic. Apparently (again, according to the backmatter of the edition I read) this book was received, when it was published, as being more entertaining/less solely instructive than other books for children, but to this 21st-century adult reader, anyhow, the narrative often feels like a lecture. For example: the father says he “cannot approve of deceit, even as a joke” (24) and also talks about how he wants his family’s story to show “how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of a strong, pure and manly character” (399). Unfortunately, character development in novelistic terms is not the book’s greatest strength: I feel like I can only describe the characters in the most general terms, even after having read more than 450 pages about them. (The father is knowledgable; the mother is hard-working; Ernest is the science-minded one; Jack tends to be impetuous; Fritz and Franz are kind of just the oldest and the youngest.) I guess I’m glad to have read this, and there were scenes/scenarios that I found interesting (like when the father teaches his family how to prepare manioc root, or when he makes rubber boots for everyone), but, yeah: I don’t feel like I missed out because I didn’t read this as a kid.

I Hate Everyone But You is an epistolary novel that takes the form of emails and text messages between two best friends, Ava and Gen. It’s their first semester of college and they’re across the country from one another: Ava’s in film school at USC (they grew up in LA); Gen’s studying journalism at Emerson. We see the bits of their lives that they share with one another, which is to say the fun/funny/stressful bits, the parts about hook-ups and relationships and social lives. From the start of the book it’s clear that Ava is the more cautious one of the pair (“Experiment with things so I don’t have to,” she jokes, in her first email to Gen); she’s been dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues for much of her life. Gen’s bolder and more easygoing, and being far from home for college suits her fine, since her family isn’t the easiest to handle (her alcoholic dad and his vow to get sober becomes a plot point).

This book was a quick and fun read, though there are some maddening moments, characterwise and otherwise. I liked the humor of Ava and Gen’s banter, but also the way they really are there for each other, despite some tensions. I didn’t like the fact that the authors referenced their own YouTube channel in the text of the book: being self-referential can be funny/cute, but this wasn’t. I also found Ava’s difficulty handling Gen’s coming out as queer to be pretty frustrating, though maybe realistic, I don’t know: Gen tells Ava she’s hooking up with women; Ava refers to Gen as gay even after Gen says she’s not; Ava also says things like “You like guys again?” even though Gen’s never stopped liking guys.

Overall, though, I liked reading about Ava and Gen’s college explorations—Ava joining a sorority and then wondering whether she should quit; Gen having various fun hookups and some associated drama; Ava having some guy trouble of her own.

I basically devoured The First Rule of Punk over the course of two days, and aw, it’s such a great middle-grade novel. Our narrator Malú is twelve, almost thirteen, and at the start of the book she’s sad about having to move from Gainesville to Chicago for two years because of her mom’s new temporary professorship there. Malú doesn’t have a lot of close friends in Gainesville, but it’s home, and she’s also going to miss her dad: her parents are divorced and her dad owns a record store; she feels culturally closer to him, because of their shared love for punk music, than she does to her Mexican American mom. (Malú’s nickname for her mom is SuperMexican, because Malú feels like she’s intensely into Mexican culture and wants Malú to be equally enthusiastic.) And she’s not exactly looking forward to starting a new school in a new place. But she doesn’t have a choice, and though school gets off to a bit of a rough start, Malú manages to make friends and to learn some things about herself, her family, and Chicanx culture in the process.

One of the most pleasing things about this book, for me, is the fact that Malú (like the author of the book) makes zines, which are incorporated into the book itself. Having read Celia C. Pérez’s zine anthology, Ofrenda, earlier this year, I knew I liked her style, and it was great to see the zines she made in Malú’s style and voice, which are fun and sometimes gorgeous (a page where Malú writes about how she’s going to miss the “Spanish moss hanging from trees like ghosts” in Gainesville has a background of tangled string, and it’s totally lovely) and also feel true to Malú’s character/the kind of zines a smart twelve-year-old would make.

The plot has enough conflict to keep things interesting (Malú decides to start a band; Malú decides to stand up for self-expression in various ways) but it’s balanced by really satisfying descriptions of daily life, like this, about October in Chicago:

I loved the sound of the leaves crunching under my shoes and the smell of wood burning. Mom and I took a trip to a farmers’ market where I discovered that there are so many different types of apples and that my new favorite food was the apple cider doughnut. I wanted to bottle up all the smells and colors and the feeling of fall so they’d always be close. I wished I could iron it all between sheets of wax paper like I’d done with the bright red maple leaf I’d mailed to Dad. And the weird thing was that when I remembered we had another fall in Chicago, I didn’t feel as unhappy as I thought I would. (221)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those very famous kids’ books (it won the Newbery Medal in 1977) that I somehow never read as a child: I’m curious as to how it would have affected me, and I wish I had been exposed to more diverse books when I was younger, but, well, better late than never.

This novel, which is set in Mississippi in the early 1930s, has a whole lot going on in it. It’s narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who’s a pretty great character: she’s smart and no-nonsense, and good at standing up for the people she cares about, and also for herself. (I felt like we got a great introduction to Cassie early in the book, when it’s the first day of school and the teacher wants the class to reply to her in unison, and Cassie doesn’t – “I never did approve of group responses,” Cassie narrates, which cracked me up because I totally relate.) Cassie and her family are something of an oddity in their community because they own their own land, whereas most of the other African-American families in the area are sharecroppers. But money is tight, and the income from the cotton the Logans grow and Cassie’s mom’s job as a teacher isn’t enough: Cassie’s dad has had to take a job on the railroad, which means he’s away from home a lot, leaving Cassie and her three brothers with their mom and grandma. Which is fine, until it’s not: a violent attack on three black men by some white men (because one of the black men has been accused of making a pass at a white woman) makes everyone uneasy, and a big part of the book has to do with how Cassie’s family responds to that violence, and to the threat of more. But that’s not all that Cassie is dealing with: another main thread in the book is the way that Cassie finds herself learning about racism’s daily manifestations, the ways in which she and her family aren’t treated equally or fairly or nicely by their white neighbors: the way her grandmother has to put her wagon at the back of the field when she goes to sell eggs at the market; the way a shopkeeper stops helping her family to help white customers; the way a white girl and her father respond when Cassie accidentally bumps into the girl on the sidewalk. Cassie starts to see the compromises the adults in her life make in the name of safety and survival, and starts to figure out what compromises she will or won’t make for herself.

I feel like historical fiction can be very hard to do well, maybe especially when it’s historical fiction for kids—sometimes the amount of explaining that needs to be done about the circumstances of a different place/time to make events make sense to a modern reader can make things feel a bit slow or didactic, and there were a few moments like that in this book (I’m thinking especially of a passage where a sharecropping neighbor is explaining his specific financial difficulties to Cassie’s mom). Overall, though, I found myself drawn into Cassie’s story/her family’s story as the book progressed; near the end, there was totally a scene that made me teary-eyed on the subway.

I’ve read and quite liked four of Scarlett Thomas’s novels for grown-ups, so when I found out she was writing a middle-grade fantasy novel, I knew I was going to want to read it, and I’m glad I did. Dragon’s Green gets off to something of a slow start (world-building and getting our characters into their various dilemmas) but once it gets going, it’s a fast-paced delight.

I can’t do this book justice with a plot summary, but basically: our protagonist, eleven-year-old Effie Truelove, has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother disappeared. Her mother’s disappearance, five years before the action of the book starts, seems to have had something to do with the worldquake, which was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-minute-long earthquake that shook the entire planet and somehow broke the internet and cell phones, sending the world “back to something like 1992,” technology-wise (8). Effie’s pretty sure her grandfather knows magic: his rooms are full of all sorts of interesting objects, and he has an amazing library that’s been off-limits to Effie—but he won’t do any magic for her or teach her any. Eventually he explains that he promised her father he wouldn’t teach her magic, but he relents a bit: he lets Effie read from his library, and starts teaching her the basics of what he calls “magical thinking.” When he ends up in the hospital, though, it becomes clear that Effie is going to have to figure magic out on her own.

Well: not entirely on her own: it turns out that there are other kids in her year at her school who have magical interests/aptitude, and circumstances bring them together into an unlikely friend-group that nevertheless totally works. And it’s a good thing Effie isn’t entirely on her own, because she has a lot to figure out, like how to navigate between this world and its magical neighbor/counterpart, the Otherworld, and oh, also how to keep an evil mage from destroying the books in her grandfather’s library.

Those books in Effie’s grandfather’s library, by the way, give rise to some of my favorite parts of the book: there’s a great story within a story where it becomes clear that Effie is going to subvert some expectations around princesses and dragons and heroes, and another story within a story where Effie’s friend Maximilian finds himself in a room full of people quoting James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield at each other. A lot of the magic/plot in this book has to do with books (it’s complicated), and that bookishness ends up being a big part of its appeal, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me: my other favorite Scarlett Thomas book is Our Tragic Universe, which has a whole lot in it about narrative/story/the structure of stories, and there’s definitely some of that in this book, too.

The Secret Garden is one of those books I definitely read as a child, but that I guess I didn’t love: re-reading it as an adult, I found that I remembered the beginning very vividly, those first two chapters where the reader is introduced to Mary Lennox, an English girl who was born in India and moves to Yorkshire to live with her uncle after her parents both die, but I didn’t remember a lot of detail about the rest of the book, though I remembered the general outline, which is basically this: Mary is a spoiled brat but also quite lonely; her uncle isn’t really around and she wanders around the massive house and its massive grounds in a state of grumpiness, until some things happen to change that. She hears about a garden on the grounds that’s been locked for ten years (her whole lifetime!) and then, excitingly, finds its key, and then its door. She also makes friends with two boys around her own age—Dickon, who’s a little older than her and is the brother of one of the servants at the house and is a kind child who loves animals and nature and knows all about plants, and Colin, who’s the same age as her and is her cousin, whose existence was being kept from her but whose room she discovers one night when she hears him crying. (Colin’s mother died and his father can’t bear seeing him; Colin has basically spent his life confined to his bedroom, and thinks of himself as an invalid, though actually it seems like his illnesses were passing things rather than anything chronic/permanent.) They all spend time in the garden together, and both Mary and Colin find themselves becoming happier and healthier and less horrible (Colin, when we meet him, is as self-centered and spoiled as Mary at the start of the book).

Re-reading this as an adult, I was (negatively) struck by a few things: 1) Mary’s casual racism (the things she says about the household servants in India, ack: I mean, it’s not presented positively and I imagine an English child living in the system of colonialism may have had those thoughts/said those things, but oof) and 2) the emphasis on positivity. I mean, I really like the idea of making space for joy, but negative emotions are a part of life too, and not all problems can be solved by changing how you think about them. So, yeah, I was bothered by bits like this: “To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live” (321). And as this piece by Anna Clark in the Guardian puts it, on one level, it makes sense within the story that Colin can walk by just believing he can/trying to/working at it: his problems are not actually physical. But, to quote Clark, “in the context of a larger literature that has relatively few complex characters with disabilities, the diagnosis of “it’s all in his head” feels disappointing.”

Still, there were things about this book that I liked a whole lot. I like the details of Mary’s arrival in England, the train ride to Yorkshire with the rain streaming down the windows and the lunch basket of cold beef and chicken and hot tea that the housekeeper gets for herself and Mary at a train station. I like the way that we get to see Mary having increasingly positive interactions with an increasing variety of people, and how her feelings about herself and the world change as that happens. I like the way that Mary’s growth and Colin’s growth are set against the springtime garden, everything and everyone opening up together, and that gorgeous spring sense of energy and possibility, and I like seeing Mary and Colin’s friendship growing, too, the way we get to see them laugh together and talk together and explore the house together on a rainy day.

Next time I’m in the mood for some early-20th-century kid-lit, I’d probably reach for some E. Nesbit sooner than I’d reach for Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I’m still glad to have re-read this.

This is the seventh of nine books in the Anastasia Krupnik series, and I think I’m going to be a little sad when I’ve read them all: they’re such fun middle-grade/early YA reads, and this one, while not my favorite, was still pleasing. Anastasia is thirteen and is bummed that she doesn’t get to go skiing over winter break: it seems like all of her friends are off on ski trips (well, except for Sonya, who is unfortunately stuck going to some weight loss program and being told to eat half an apple for “dessert” – blergh) while Anastasia’s stuck at home. She has nothing to do over break except a school paper on the topic of her “chosen career,” and she’s not really looking forward to it, until she has a brilliant idea: maybe she can convince her parents to let her go to a week-long modeling course for junior high students. In her head, of course, “model” is her chosen career, but she knows her parents aren’t going to be cool with that, so she tells them she wants to be a bookstore owner: the modeling course is just because anyone being entrepreneurial needs poise and confidence, right?

So her parents agree she can take the course, and her dad also arranges for her to interview a Boston bookstore owner he knows: it may not be skiing, but Anastasia’s excited. The modeling school turns out not to be as glamorous as Anastasia’s visions of it, and she keeps forgetting to actually interview the bookstore owner (though she visits her more than once), and oh, also, the hopelessly uncool boy from her old school who totally used to have a crush on her is signed up for the modeling class, too: augh. But it’s OK because visiting a bookstore owner and her store is interesting, and Anastasia makes a new friend in modeling class: Henry Peabody (“Short for Henrietta. But if you call me that, you die”) who is gorgeous (though she doesn’t initially realize it) and also smart/kind/fun. I like Henry’s no-nonsense feminism (she tells Anastasia that when they grow up, they can get married if they want, but they don’t need husbands), but as always, Anastasia herself is what makes this book as fun as it is. I love the way we get to see her rewrites of her school assignment in progress as the week progresses, and I love her ridiculous overactive imagination: she’s always thinking about something, whether she’s pondering changing her name to “Spike” because she thinks the matching k-sounds in “Spike Krupnik” are cool, or worrying about being late (or, possibly worse, early) to modeling school on the first day, or getting bizarrely nervous about Henry’s dad (who’s a police officer) driving her home after she has dinner with the Peabody family (because he’s driving her home on the way to work, and what if he has to, like, capture a criminal with her in the car?). And, I mean, how could I not love/relate to a character who’s described like this?

Bookstores were among Anastasia’s favorite places; maybe they were even first on her list, or at least tied for first with libraries. She sometimes thought that she would like to live in a library, not even having a kitchen—just going out to eat, and spending all the rest of her life surrounded by books. (67-68)

All Our Pretty Songs is a lush YA retelling of the Orpheus myth (but different), set in the Pacific Northwest, written in a way that is pleasantly reminiscent of Francesca Lia Block. It starts with our unnamed narrator on summer vacation before her senior year of high school, introducing us to herself and her best friend, Aurora. The narrator’s mom and Aurora’s mom used to be best friends but no longer speak; the narrator’s dad has never been around, and Aurora’s dad, who was a famous rock star, is dead. Aurora’s mom is a junkie; the narrator’s mom is a witch (in the herbs-and-amulets-and-fortune-telling way, I mean). And the narrator and Aurora? They’re like sisters who have kind of raised themselves, with Aurora as the wilder one, the one who “never thinks about what comes after. She’s all now, all the time. This moment, this kiss, this second holds everything” (6).

Not long into the book, Aurora and the narrator meet Jack, a slightly-older singer/guitarist whose music is intense and beautiful and like nothing they’ve ever experienced. As the flap copy puts it, though, they’re “not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below, which may not be mythical at all.” So, yeah, things get weird: at the same party where the narrator meets Jack, she notices a creepy guy who “smiles a smile with too many teeth” who’s also made rapt by Jack’s music (25). The creepy guy, whose name is Minos (yes, the mythological one), keeps showing up, pulling both Aurora and Jack into his orbit, in this interesting way where the narrator is pretty sure she’s seeing some supernatural stuff happening but still has doubts as to what’s actually going on: at one point Aurora’s mom asks where she is, and the narrator’s answer is priceless: “She either went to Los Angeles or she went to hell” (142).

Before the weird stuff, though, the narrator becomes smitten with Jack, and there are some pretty delicious scenes with the two of them, but what I like even more are the scenes with her and Aurora, or, best of all, with her and her friend from work, Raoul—they work together at a fruit stand at what basically seems to be Pike Place Market, and he’s totally my favorite character in the book. I like how the narrator figures herself out a bit over the course of the book, and how Raoul helps with that; I like his smarts and his kindness and his humor, and a conversation the narrator has with him at one point totally made me teary-eyed. I felt like the pacing of this book was somewhat uneven, but maybe it was just where I was in my reading of it: it felt like the plot was slow to get moving and then moved really quickly, but the writing was pleasing enough to keep me engaged even before the plot kicked in. I like how the narrator describes being up front at a show, watching a band: she says she and Aurora are “all the way inside our bodies and all the way outside them at the same time” (7). And I am a sucker for descriptive passages like this:

In the winter I love my work. All the out-of-towners flee the eternal damp. We have to wear sweaters and wool hats to keep out the cold, and we drink coffee until we’re cracked-out and speedy. The cobblestoned streets are wet and foggy, the low mournful sound of the ferry horn carries across the water, and all the afternoons are dreamy and quiet. (36)

This was a book I liked more as I got farther into it, a book I ended up staying up late to finish, and a book whose sequels I’m looking forward to reading.