The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies is The Railway Children.  I don’t remember the-railway-children-26specifically when I first watched it, but it came out in 1970 and I probably saw it shortly after that. I have it on VHS somewhere, but no longer have a VHS machine. I did, however, have the book.

E. Nesbit’s story, first published in 1906, tells the story of siblings Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis who live with their well-to-do parents “in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa.” Their father works in government and their mother was always “ready to play with the children, and read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons.”

One evening, out of the blue, two men arrive at the villa and the father is “called away on business.” Afterwards, the children and their mother leave London and head out to the countryside where they will live in a “ducky dear little white house.” Although they seem to be destitute they get by. The mother is a writer and when she sells a story, the children get a treat of buns.

The children occupy their days with adventures, including making friends with the porter at the local railway station and an old gentleman who waves at them from the window of the 9:15 train they nickname the Green Dragon. There is pretty much nothing sweeter than what these three kids get up to. They are thoughtful, resilient, and kind. Revisiting their story was like being wrapped in a warm hug and Bobbie’s sentiments seemed particularly poignant given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at this point in history:

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un – friends.

 

We Are Still Tornadoes – Michael Kun & Susan Mullen

Yes, it was a million years ago, but I do remember that first year of university right after high school. Most of my friends went away, but I stayed home. This was before the Internet and way before long distance was cheap/free. How did we keep in touch? We wrote letters.

I was a big letter writer back in the day. I had a zillion pen pals and then when all my friends went off to university, I wrote letters. I miss letter writing because, while it’s not as immediate as sending an e-mail, it gives you the opportunity to think about what you want to say, to catalogue the minutiae of your life and allow your recipient to have a little time capsule of your thoughts and feelings. It’s kinda cool.

tornadoesThat’s what Scott and Cath do in Michael Kun and Susan Mullen’s epistolary novel We Are Still Tornadoes. Cath has gone off to Wake College in North Carolina, but Scott has stayed home. He’s currently working in his father’s men’s clothing store – a job that is the subject of much derision until it’s not.

Cath and Scott have been besties since they were kids. They live across the street from each other and know each other, in some ways, better than they know themselves. Of course, this relationship comes with the requisite squabbles and misunderstandings, but mostly they are each other’s best and most loyal cheerleaders.

 

Their correspondence – which starts with the note Scott leaves in Cath’s suitcase – is  a joy to read. From these inauspicious beginnings, the two trade stories about their daily lives, their struggles to fit in or, in Scott’s case, figure out what he’s doing with his life. When things happen to them – good or bad – they turn to each other, as they always have. Cath meets new people; Scott longs for an old girlfriend; their lives, as lives often do, become more complicated.

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The novel takes place in 1982 – so just a couple years after I would have graduated from high school – and it is peppered with pop culture references (particularly musical) which I appreciated. Imagine talking about Thriller as if you were hearing it for the first time! Imagine going to see English Beat in concert!

I laughed-out-loud on more than one occasion, particularly at Scott (his sense of humour was totally my jam).

As for whether your parents are being weird, I don’t know how to answer that. The only time I ever see your mom is when she forgets to close the shade in the bathroom when she’s taking a shower, and even then it’s only if I feel like walking all the way over to my closet to get my binoculars, take them out of the box, walk back to the window, etc. It’s a whole production.

Ultimately, We Are Still Tornadoes is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a story about friends and how amazing it is to have one who, even when they let you down, always finds a way to pick you back up. I loved it.

Highly recommended.

The Fountains of Silence – Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys has a gift. Well, she has many gifts, to be fair, but I particularly admire her ability to write characters that absolutely lift off the page and linger in your imagination long after the last page has been turned.

At my high school, we introduce readers to Sepetys in grade nine, when we read Between Shades of Gray. I have yet to encounter a student, even  those who identify as non-readers, who doesn’t rip through that book, many reading way ahead of the class. In grade ten, when we introduce Salt to the Sea there are very few groans. Again, students quickly become wholly invested in the stories of the characters. When I read the final few pages out loud to my grade ten classes in the fall, I had to stop several times because I was so close to tears I couldn’t get the words out. That’s how you know these characters have become real to you, I guess: you care about their fate.

fountainsI was very excited to read Sepetys’s latest book, The Fountains of Silence, because I just knew that I was going to meet a new cast of characters to fall in love with, and I wasn’t wrong.

Daniel Matheson is almost nineteen when he travels to Madrid with his parents during the summer of 1957. His father is an oil tycoon from Texas, and his mother is originally from Spain. Daniel’s dream is to become a photo journalist, but his father disapproves. While Mr. Matheson does business, Daniel takes pictures, and in doing so he starts to see that sunny Madrid is one city to tourists and another to people who struggle beneath Francisco Franco’s yoke.

Ana works in the hotel and is assigned to help the Mathesons. Her story is one of poverty and struggle. Her father was executed and her mother imprisoned and “Her parents’ offense has left Ana rowing dark waters of dead secrets. Born into a long shadow of shame, she must never speak publicly of her parents. She must live in silence.”

Ana and Daniel feel an instant attraction to each other, but it’s the classic case of being from opposite sides of the social spectrum. There is so much Ana wants to say and can’t, and so much that Daniel doesn’t understand, but certainly will.

Although Ana and Daniel’s story is central to the plot, there are other compelling characters in this book, including Ana’s older brother Rafa and his childhood friend, Fuga; Ben, a seasoned journalist who takes Daniel under his wing, and Puri, Ana’s cousin who works at a local orphanage. Although Ana and Daniel will take up most of the space in your heart, all the characters you’ll encounter are compelling and interesting.

Once again, Sepetys has mined history to find her story. This one concerns the thousands of children who were stolen from their parents and adopted by more ‘suitable’ families. It also provides a window into the period of the Spanish Civil War and the years immediately following, when “Helpless children and teenagers became innocent victims of wretched violence and ideological pressure.”

Their stories deserve to be told and Sepetys does them, and us, a great service by telling them.

Highly recommended.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I have been wanting to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a long time. It’s one of treebrooklynthose books from my childhood that has stayed with me and that I often recommend to students in my class, based solely on my hazy memories of having loved it. So, now, 45 years after reading it for the first time, I have finally finished spending some more time with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Frances (Francie) Nolan.

Betty Smith’s most famous novel tells the story of young Francie, who comes of age in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Katie and Johnny, and older sister to Neeley. Francie’s entire adolescence is captured in Smith’s un-embellished prose (not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, because it is). The Nolans are poor and they live in a time where every penny counts. Katie is a hard-working janitress and Johnny a singing waiter, when he can get some work (and he often cannot). He’s a beautiful, dreamy man, who mostly drinks. It’s impossible not to love Johnny who believes “how wonderful [it would be if] everything you talked about could come true!” Francie idolizes her father and, in some way, resents her mother.

When the novel opens, Francie is just eleven. Francie and her brother are already industrious children. She and Neeley

collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home from school slowly with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar.

I remember, as a kid, being fascinated with how the Nolans stretched every single penny. How the pennies Francie earned by bringing her junk to the junkman gave her the privilege of going into a store and “What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface [because] her nickel gave her this privilege.” I probably read this book for the first time in the early 1970s and I remember feeling awed by the fact that Francie had nothing. Although my parents weren’t rich, we were always warm and fed and Francie’s poverty was remarkable to me.

But I think what makes Francie such a remarkable and beloved character is her resilience. And her capacity for hope. Although her circumstances were often dire, she is a girl who believes in limitless possibilities and isn’t afraid to work hard to achieve them. I admire that about her. As a kid, I loved that Francie was a reader and a writer because I loved both of those things, too. When Francie read she was “at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy and all alone in the house.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books that captures a simpler time. It’s anecdotal in that sometimes we have little glimpses into the lives of other characters, and there are pivotal moments in Francie’s life that are beautifully rendered. It’s also a modern book, given when it was published (1943). In one instance, after Francie meets and falls in love with a young soldier, but declines to spend some private time with him, she asks her mother if she should have gone with the young man.

As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger – a man she had known for less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined…. But as a woman…I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.

Yes, the book is dated. Yes, there are moments of racism and sexism. But it is also a time capsule. It is a full-hearted look at a time and place that no longer exists and captures the life of a girl who, like a tree growing up through the cracks in cement, reaches for the light.

 

 

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

simonBecky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda won the William C. Morris Debut Award, but the accolades don’t stop there. The book has been praised or recognized by everyone from ALA, Carnegie, Oprah and Lambda. Although this book has been on my shelf for a couple years, as soon as I knew the movie was coming out – I knew I had to read it…and I am soooo sorry I waited so long.

Simon is a junior in high school. He lives with his younger sister, Nora, and his parents. His older sister, Alice, is away at college.

Simon is all kinds of awesome. He’s funny, self-aware, smart and gay. The problem is that he hasn’t told anyone yet – about being gay. Everyone knows the other stuff. Well, there’s one person who knows Simon’s secret. His name is Blue. He and Simon have been exchanging emails and those emails are what set Simon’s story in motion. When he forgets to log out of his Gmail account at school, another kid, Martin, sees the emails and uses them to blackmail Simon into helping him hook up with one of Simon’s friends, Abby. It’s kind of a ridiculous premise, really, but let’s remember the cesspool that is high school.

…the whole coming out thing doesn’t really scare me.

I don’t think it scares me.

It’s a giant holy box of awkwardness, and I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to it But it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not for me.

Simon’s blackmailer is “a little bit of a goober nerd”, but Simon doesn’t want to out Blue and so he does his level best to match make, but the problem is that Abby likes someone else, Nick, who is one of Simon’s best friends. And then there’s Leah, Simon’s other bestie, who may have feelings for Nick herself. It’s a tangled web, but maneuvering through these relationships is part of the high school experience.

Watching Simon and Blue’s relationship unfold via their emails is really beautiful. Despite attending the same school, they don’t know each other’s true identity and so they speak freely about their insecurities and hopes. They fall in love without meeting and, I have to say, it’s pretty damn romantic.

The other awesome thing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it’s funny. Like laugh-out-loud funny. And also heart-felt without being schmaltzy. Even Martin has his moment of redemption. There are no bad guys in the story, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn (sans didactics).

…people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.

High recommended.

//players.brightcove.net/823022174001/0de3ded5-8290-49c7-b25d-fcddec46dfb3_default/index.html?videoId=5713014172001

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh

My-Sunshine-AwayJust when I thought my reading slump was never going to end, I read M.O. Walsh’s compelling debut novel My Sunshine Away. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this book – start to finish.

The unnamed adult narrator is recalling the time between ages 14 and 16, when he lived with his mother on Piney Creek Road, in an affluent area outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s obsessively in love with Lindy Simpson, the beautiful fifteen-year-old track star who lives across the street. After Lindy is raped, our narrator’s life is irrevocably changed. Through his eyes we try to unravel the mystery of who hurt Lindy and so, in that respect, My Sunshine Away is a total page-turner. But it is so, so much more than that.

First of all, Walsh evokes a sense of time and place that is both exotic (I have never been to Louisiana, although I would love to visit once Trump is no longer in office) and familiar. Set in 1989, the book’s sense of time and place is practically nostalgia now. The children on the street get together and play football, go fishing, wander the woods, gather piles of moss. It’s pre-Internet and so reminiscent of my own childhood despite the fact that it’s 20 years later. You know, back when kids played outside. With each other.

The main character is completely authentic. From his vantage point as an adult, he spills both the varnished and unvarnished truth about those two turbulent years when he watched Lindy so closely that readers might actually believe he could have had something to do with her attack. He even admits that  he was “one of the suspects”,  but then begs the reader to “Hear me out. Let me explain.”

There was something about My Sunshine Away that reminded me of Thomas H. Cook.  This is a compliment. Really. At his best, Cook writes literate mysteries that often plumb the complicated depths of family and memory. I couldn’t help but think of Cook while reading Walsh because Cook’s characters are never stereotypes. They are so fully realized that his novels always feel like  much more than just a straight-up mystery. This was true of My Sunshine Away, also. Like our narrator, we want to find out who had hurt Lindy, but we also want to come to terms with the narrator’s relationship with his father who has left the family home, and his wife and son bereft. We want to see him work his way through his awkward adolescence. This is  a bildungsroman done so well that your breath will literally catch in your throat.

The narrator’s self-awareness is so profound that it takes My Sunshine Away to another level entirely.

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

I highly and wholeheartedly recommend this book.