(published in the Charlotte Observer March 23/17
A wonky knee has kept me on couch and crutches since November. “How can you stand it?” someone asked. Easy answer – reading books that hook me and hold me till the end. Here are recent favorites.
Patricia Hruby Powell’s free verse poems give a strong emotional context for the events of the Supreme Court decision in “Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case.” (Chronicle, ages 11 and up). Powell gives convincing portraits of Mildred and Richard Loving’s courtship, marriage, troubles, trials and triumph. Richard describes his “Bean” as innocent, but both were shocked to be arrested by a Virginia sheriff for co-habiting after they had been married in D.C. So began nine years of living far from family and friends. Mildred’s poems are filled with frustration, longing for home and a willingness to stand up for others. Richard’s show a doubting, disgusted, exhausted man more private than his wife. Nonfiction narratives between poems describe events that influenced the Lovings’ lives until the Supreme Court decision on June 12, 1967, to reverse Virginia’s judgment.
At 3, Sal, the hero of Benjamin Alire Saenez’s “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life” (Clarion, ages 14 and up) was adopted by Vincente. Vincente, his gay Mexican-American father has the wisdom and compassion of Atticus Finch and has always provided security and tranquility. But at 17, Sal’s peace is threatened by fear and shame at his own sudden outbursts of violence. Are these because of his biological father, the impending death of his beloved grandmother, disasters that have befallen his best friends, or Vincente’s renewed relationship with a male friend? Saenz shows his gifts for lyrical writing, developing emotion-rich relationships and struggles along the difficult path to coming of age.
Carver Briggs, the hero of Jeff Zentner’s “Goodbye Days” (Crown, ages 13 and up) begins with a confession. “I may have killed my three best friends,” the 17-year-old admits while attending their funerals. At the scene of the boys’ car accident, police found a cellphone with a half-composed return text to Carver. The dead boys’ guardians are, in turn, forgiving, furious and vengeful. In the midst of peers’ hatred, the courts threatening prosecution and panic attacks, Carver finds comfort from one of his friend’s girlfriends. As he did in “The Serpent King,” Zentner proves his understanding of the weight of responsibility, dialogue that deepens characters, and the interplay of humor and heartbreak.
Kelly Barnhill’s Newbery-winning “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” (Algonquin, ages 11 and up) will be most appreciated by sophisticated readers. Two casts of well-developed characters co-exist in adjacent locations. One town is governed by a severe board of elders who make annual sacrifice to appease a cruel witch. In actuality, Xan, the ancient (and misunderstood) witch finds adoptive homes for these babies, excepting Luna whom she raises after the baby is “enmagicked” when accidentally fed magic-giving moonlight. Both worlds are infused with unique forms of magic. Philosophy and plots intertwine, woven together with bejeweled language and themes of love, secrets, power, belonging and family.