I'm about to do the unthinkable. I've bolstered my courage. Strengthened
my resolve. I'm ready. This year, for the first time ever, I am
not going to send Christmas cards.
And here are a few more things I'm not going to do: bake ten different
types of Christmas cookies. Home cure a gravlax. Hand-stamp wrapping
paper. Make eggnog from scratch.
Instead, I'm going to build a fire and sit by it in the evening
with my family and a good glass of wine. I'm going to linger at
the kitchen window in the morning to watch the cardinal and his
wife at the birdfeeder. Sing Rudolph and Frosty to my daughter every single time she asks me to. Read Whitman and
Dickinson in a room with no clocks. And send all the money I save
on postage, butter and valium to www.savethechildren.com and www.roomtogrow.com.
That's my goal. It won't be easy, but I think I'm up to the challenge.
You in? Good! I just know we can all do less this year if we really
put our minds to it.
I recently finished two wonderfully difficult books – both
of which were praised and panned with equal vigor by readers and
reviewers. The first is the haunting How I Live Now by
Meg Rosoff. A friend in England was so smitten by the book that
she told me I had to read it, then bought me a copy to make sure
How I Live Now is about a teenager named Daisy –
a Manhattan kid with issues. Daisy's mother is dead. Her father
has remarried. He and his new wife have had a baby. Daisy, who doesn't
get along with her stepmother, is sent to live in England with her
Aunt Penn – her mother's sister – and Penn's children
in a wonderfully tumbledown country house. Shortly after Daisy arrives,
the unthinkable happens – war breaks out. Aunt Penn, an anti-war
activist, is immediately called to Oslo. When she becomes stranded
there, Daisy and her cousins are left to fend for themselves. Bohemian
and self-reliant, the cousins at first manage to cope very nicely.
Soon, however, the effects of war – shortages of food and
medicine, the commandeering of property, and horrific violence –
make themselves felt.
What really got under my skin was the portrayal of life during wartime.
And war during lifetime – mine, that is. Some reviewers had
problems with Rosoff's war scenario, and I'll admit the premise
seems a bit sketchy at times – a big bomb, an occupying army
that seemingly goes unchallenged – and yet, Rosoff manages
to make Daisy's life in a wartorn world utterly believable. This
may be be partly due to the fact that she's writing in a post 9/11
world – one in which we've all seen what a few maniacs on
a mission can do – but it's mostly due to Rosoff's ability
as a writer. She's subtle and convincing, showing us not nuclear
explosions and apocalypse, but the gradual unraveling of a society
and its people.
The story is told by Daisy, and I loved spending time with this
jaded and vulnerable fifteen-year-old, listening to her funny, sarcastic
comments on her disintegrating world, watching love and suffering
chip away at her hard New York shell to reveal the caring girl underneath
it. War isn't all bad – at least not to begin with for Daisy
and her cousins. They enjoy their first heady days of freedom from
adults and rules and school and for a little while, Daisy thinks
this new world is pretty cool until she and her cousin Piper, are
separated from Piper's brothers – one of whom Daisy has fallen
in love with. And until the uneasy coexistence with the occupiers
is shattered by gunshots at a checkpoint.
The book, Rosoff's first, received starred reviews from Publisher's
Weekly and Booklist. I read it in September, and I'm still thinking
about Daisy, Piper, Edmund and Aunt Penn.
The second wonderfully difficult book is A Life's Work: On Becoming
a Mother by Rachel Cusk. In it, Cusk – an award winning
novelist – chronicles her journey from pregnant woman to mother
of a two year old with honesty and insight. To be truthful, A
Life's Work annoyed the hell out of me at times. I almost gave
up on it more than once. As a new mother, Cusk seemed whiny, self-obsessed,
and too-too tragic – but then as I was about to put the book
aside, I remembered something: so was I.
I kept reading. And saw myself again and again. Some chapters were
painfully funny. Some were just painful. (I defy any mother to read Breathe dry-eyed.) What was so magical about this book
to me, what kept me hooked, was how Cusk quietly portrayed the transformative
power of motherhood. Demonstrated it, really. As her baby grew,
and she herself grew, her inward gaze turned outward. Her stories,
once about herself and her baby, gradually became about other mothers,
other children. The sorrow, when still felt, was for others.
The last page of the book is so beautiful, so wrenching, so full
of compassion and wisdom and grace – all hard won –
that it left me breathless. I won't say more, but if you get the
chance to read this book, by all means do.
I attended the National Conference of Teachers of English last month
– www.ncte.org – where
I signed books and spoke at the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents
– www.alan-ya.org – on the topic of historical fiction
to teachers and librarians. While I was there, I poked my nose into
as many publishers' booths as I could and sniffed out two picture
The first is the exuberant Subway written by Anastasia
Suen and illustrated by Karen Katz. A tale of a ride taken on the
F train, Subway follows a little girl and her mother as
they board the train, change trains, rock back and forth, listen
to buskers and generally have a great old time getting to their
destination. The text is brisk – four lines to a spread –
with simple rhymes and repetition. Daisy is absolutely captivated
by Katz's illustrations, which are bold, bright and big, and which
convey the movement, color and noise of the subway, and the joyous
diversity of its passengers.
The second gem – A Packet of Seeds, written by Deborah
Hopkinson and illustrated by Bethanne Andersen – is a far
cry from the New York City subway system. It's the second picture
book to make me cry this year – the first was The Friend,
written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small. It's about
a mother who leaves friends and family forever to journey west with
her husband and children to become homesteaders on the prairie.
The mother didn't want to leave her home and is lonely on the prairie.
Her husband is too busy working the land to notice her sorrow, so
her children – knowing that she loves flowers – contrive
to make a garden for her. Their touching efforts, helped along –
finally! – by their father, enable the children's mother to
overcome her loss and embrace her new life.
Beautifully written, the book is also gorgeously illustrated. The
pictures have a primitive quality which marries perfectly with the
pioneer theme, but they also have a rare emotional depth. Looking
at them, you can feel the father's passion for his dream –
and how it blinds him to the needs of his family. You can sense
the mother's anguish and isolation, and the love her children feel
for her. There's one illustration is so alive with push-pull movement
between the husband and wife, that it simultaneously conveys their
strong union and foreshadows their estrangement. It's incredible.
A Packet of Seeds is for ages 5 and up. Way up. Buy one
for a special child in your life. Then buy one for yourself.
Another favorite is Beegu, written and illustrated by Alexis
Deacon. Shortlisted for England's prestigious Greenaway Medal, Beegu is about a little alien who has mistakenly landed on earth and her
search for friendship and belonging. The illustrations are startlingly
original. The text is spare but evocative. And the story itself
is a moving reminder of how children – and dogs – see
with their hearts.
Wishing you that precious sight this holiday season.