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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Wonderstruck

by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2011

639 pages

When I was growing up, book fairs were one of my favorite things about school.

Every year, I waited with baited breath for those little catalogs to show up on our desks.  And though I never got to buy all the books I wanted (which was only every single one in the entire catalog), book-delivery day was as big as Christmas for me.

So you can imagine how excited I was when my daughter, who is in kindergarten, brought home a little note announcing family book fair night.

I didn’t really ask her if she wanted to go–and we got there early, like Black Friday shoppers (though I controlled myself enough to enter the school library in an orderly fashion).

I was halfway down the wall of displays when I saw it: Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick’s followup to his stunning hybrid graphic/text novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

If I hadn’t been conditioned into silence by a lifetime of library visits, I would have squealed out loud.  As it was, I grabbed for the book so, um, vigorously that it’s a good thing no one was standing between me and the shelf.

I didn’t buy Wonderstruck that night (I let my daughter spend all the money), but a quick skim was enough to send me straight to the public library’s “I want this book” list as soon as I got home.

And, once again, Selznick did not disappoint.  Wonderstruck is not a sequel to Hugo Cabret, but it is a worthy successor–and ideal fodder for this blog.

The book consists of two tales, initially told separately but later intertwined in a somewhat predictable but entirely elegant way.

For me, the inspiration is in the story of Rose, a 12-year-old living in 1920s New Jersey.

Born into a wealthy family, Rose is a deaf-mute whose parents confine her to the house and subject her to private lessons in speech and lip-reading.

Fed up with the isolation and shame, Rose runs away to New York City, where she moves in with her older brother.  She begins to make a new life for herself and, much later, helps another young runaway do the same.

Almost from her first appearance in the book, Rose inspired me with her uncompromising spirit.

She knows who she is and believes she has the right to be that person.  She won’t settle for anything different, or anything less, even through bewilderment, deep fear, and heartbreak.

And the story validates her difficult decisions.  Fifty years after her journey to New York, Rose is a confident, fulfilled woman.  She’s had a satisfying life, with no regrets.

When she meets runaway Ben, also deaf, she seizes the opportunity to pour that confidence and fulfillment into his life.

She opens her life to Ben so he can have a living, breathing example of the validity of pursing dreams and living to his full potential.

By sharing her story with him, she helps him find peace–with himself, with his history, and with the missing pieces of his life.

What a great message for girls: Define your identity from within, not from without–and be courageous yet vulnerable enough to show others your true self.

The reward? Not just fulfillment for your own life, but (even better) a connection to and legacy of inspiration for the next generation.

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When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books, 2009

208 pages

When You Reach Me is a fantasy that doesn’t know it’s a fantasy, a typical coming-of-age novel made atypical–even brilliant–by its sci-fi undercurrent and ever-shifting web of connections and revelations.

Set in the late 1970s, the novel centers on Miranda, a sixth-grader who lives with her mother on Manhattan’s pre-gentrified Upper West Side.

Though the story shifts back and forth in time, it really all starts when Miranda’s best friend Sal falls victim to a random beating on the way home from school.  He subsequently shuts her out of his life, refusing to interact with her at school or in the building where they both live.

Miranda finds new friends, but those relationships are fraught with an unexpected–and unfamiliar–blend of hormones and junior-high politics.

At home, she’s becoming increasingly aware of her mother’s idiosyncratic but persistent immaturity.  Not to mention that Mom’s longtime boyfriend is pressing for marriage, and Miranda is puzzled by her mother’s apparent reluctance to commit.

And then there are the notes.  They start appearing in strange places, like Miranda’s library book or coat pocket, and say strange things like “I am coming to save your friend’s life.”

The mystery of the notes’ origin is at the book’s core, and Stead weaves the solution through her tightly-written narrative with amazing precision.

Every event, every aside contributes to the conclusion.  Even the chapter titles–a clever homage to Miranda’s mother’s favorite game show–are part of the puzzle.

In short, Stead’s craft makes When You Reach Me a pure joy to read.  But it’s Miranda’s growth that makes the book inspiring.

When the story begins, Miranda is petulant, possessive, and judgmental.

She frets over Sal’s desertion–not because she’s worried about him, but because she’s disdainful (and secretly petrified) of people and experiences outside her life-with-Sal bubble.

She’s also incredibly insecure about her own place on the socioeconomic ladder.  The latchkey child of an underpaid legal secretary, she envies the middle- and upper-middle-class trappings of her new friends’ lives.

As she teases out the mystery of the anonymous notes, however, something happens.

Forced to operate on her own, she uncovers hidden reserves of intelligence, strength, and independence.

And as she connects more deeply with her new friends, she realizes that no one’s life is perfect, that everyone has to juggle at least a few challenges with their blessings.

Perhaps more importantly, she also realizes that people aren’t perfect–nor should she expect them to be.  And as a result, she begins to shift her interpersonal paradigm away from suspicion and contempt, toward empathy and compassion.

In other words, she makes a (largely self-directed) successful transition from the predictability and comfort of childhood to the ambiguity and stress of adolescence.

What’s particularly inspiring about this transition is the way it impacts other characters in the story.

Miranda’s own growth is like a spark of fire among kindling–it touches off growth, mostly in the form of new and better connections, in the people around her.

And isn’t that, after all, what’s most inspiring about inspiration?  That it almost never stops with one person, but instead spreads encouragement and uplift to others.

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When Mindy Saved Hanukkah

by Eric A. Kimmel; ill. by Barbara McClintock

Scholastic Press, 1998

32 pages

Courage is a difficult, even counterintuitive, quality to cultivate in our children.

By definition, it requires direct exposure to danger or adversity–the very kinds of circumstances from which we try to protect our kids.

And when dealing with girls, there’s an added challenge.

In our culture, courage is usually depicted as a masculine trait–e.g., we tell people to “man up” or “buck up,” not “woman up” or “doe up.”

As if that didn’t make it hard enough to en-courage girls, we use feminine language to evoke cowardice and weakness (e.g., “You run/throw/scream like a girl”).

This is why I keep my radar up for books featuring courageous heroines–they’re a great way to counteract the courage-is-for-boys message that has a tendency to seep into our everyday language.

Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah is that kind of book.

The title character is a miniature human who lives with her family behind the walls of New York City’s Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Like the Borrowers of classic kid lit, Mindy Klein’s family repurposes castoff, full-size items to serve their own needs.

For Hannukah, that means melting down one of the synagogue’s discarded candles to produce smaller versions for the Kleins and their friends.

At least, that’s the plan.

But when Papa Klein tries to acquire the candle, he discovers that the synagogue has a new resident: a fierce cat who thinks mini-humans are likely to be even tastier than mice.

Most of the family treats this setback as final–but Mindy insists that she can get the candle.

And get the candle she does, after a grueling and hair-raising foray into the larger world.

The story itself is incredibly engaging.  Kimmel is a master plotter, concocting a tale that shimmers with a magical blend of suspense, humor, and the warmth of a close-knit family and community.

As for the illustrations, McClintock’s paintings are the perfect foil for Kimmel’s text.  Her domestic scenes are full of creativity and humor, and her reveal of the synagogue is simply breathtaking.

The book is also a great introduction to the story of Hannukah, particularly for Gentile or secular Jewish families.  Kimmel layers the text with natural allusions to synagogue culture and the holiday’s origin, then provides an easy-to-understand glossary in the back.

But the best part of the book, of course, is Mindy’s inspiring courage, a blend of several traits that are themselves challenging to cultivate.

First, there’s her confidence.  When everyone else tries to convince Mindy to stay home, she lists all the reasons she’s the perfect person to fetch the candle–her speed, her strength, etc.

Then there’s her perseverance.  Mindy’s adventure pushes her right to the limits of her physical and mental endurance, but she refuses to quit.

And finally, there is her common sense: when Mindy ends up in a stalemate with the cat, she has the smarts to accept help and work as part of a team.

The end result is success and provision, not just for Mindy’s family but for all their friends who gather at the synagogue for Hanukkah.

So perhaps that’s what’s most inspiring about this book–the idea that one little girl’s courage can impact an entire community.

“Man up”?  Maybe I’ll start saying “Mindy up” instead.

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