Each time we review customer holds on books, CDs, and DVDs to ensure the wait lists aren’t becoming too long I see names that are familiar; James Patterson is often there and I also see Nora Roberts, Stuart Woods, Linwood Barclay. Customers at WPL are also such big fans of every award-winner going so as soon the longlists are announced for anything we see an increase in the interest in those titles, whether they be books or films. Once in a while there are surprises on these lists and that is what makes working at a public library constantly invigorating and that is what makes coming to work every day so interesting.
The most recent list had the most encouraging title at the top of the list, a title from the shelves of our Children’s Department, not a spy thriller or the latest Hollywood memoir. The book that WPL customers are most interested in reading right now is R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a book that has recently been adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay. We’ve had this fabulous novel on the shelves since 2012 with constant love from the families and kids who have taken it home. From the very moment that young readers started to get to know the main character, Auggie Pullman, they knew that they had read something authentic and wanted to talk about it, share it with friends, and find out more. This is a story about a previously homeschooled 10-year old boy who decides to start attending school (with all of the pressures you would expect plus the fact that he has several medical conditions including a severe facial deformity) and the author chooses to use this as an opportunity to model friendship, acceptance and empathy instead of your typical fish out of water story. It’s the perfect choice for a read-aloud or read alone.
It’s tough to find something exactly like Auggie’s situation but we have so many beautifully written novels to tempt you. The quality of writing for the middle-school audience is outstanding and, once you read your first one, you will find yourself coming back for more. Sarah Weeks wrote a fantastic book that will bring everyone back to their days of sitting in the school cafeteria with Save Me A Seat. She tells the story of Joe, who has just lost his best friends because they moved away, and Ravi, who has arrived in New Jersey from India. Joe has been bullied his whole life and Ravi is struggling with trying to be understood while he navigates the strange world of an American middle school. They find their way through the lunch line, the humiliation thrust upon them by classroom bullies and a week’s worth of homework together. This is where real friendships are formed.
Schools and friendships are the cornerstone of great literature for kids. It also really helps make the story ‘zing’ if the parents are absent in some way. They don’t have to be deceased exactly but their interference in a book can really slow down a narrative. Just think of every great book you loved when you were a kid – did the mother/father/grandparent/guardian feature prominently? If any adult was a big part of the story they were usually a very cool aunt or spectacularly helpful older cousin or mature neighbour. It can never be someone in authority – this spoils absolutely everything. Wonder‘s author addresses this in interviews about her book and many other authors, like Neil Gaiman and Kate Di Camillo, have done so as well. Stories are better without a cumbersome adult around.
Author Donna Gephart had written several successful novels for kids before she came to write the story of Lily and Dunkin in 2016. They meet in the beginning of their grade eight year when they find they have something in common – they dislike their birth names (Lily was originally Tim and Dunkin was born Norbert and takes up his new name due to his fondness for the doughnuts) – and are grappling with bodies that are betraying them. In Lily’s case she knows that she is a girl but others assume she is a boy and classmates bully her as she slowly exhibits her identity by wearing makeup in public and Dunkin is hiding his bipolar disorder from his team so that he can become a part of their a successful basketball program. As Dunkin chooses to stop taking his anti-psychotic medications so that he can have more energy for basketball and Lily works on environmental issues their friendship grows. Gephart’s gift for humour makes this so much more than a book about kids with difficulties in middle-school.
Should you be interesting in approaching the middle-school world through something more visual you might want to check out CeCe Bell’s El Deafo. It’s a graphic novel of the author’s own experience but she has chosen to make all of her characters anthropomorphized bunnies so it seems oddly current – who knows exactly how old a bunny is, really. CeCe contracted meningitis as a child, loses her hearing, and goes through the experience of learning to use a hearing aid, requiring cords and a large receiver worn on her chest. The real magic in this book is her ability to dig deep into her memory and help the reader feel as if they are by her side as she relives the terrifying moment when she first realizes that she can’t hear her mother’s voice, how wonderful it is to hear again when she first uses the hearing aid, what it feels like to use her super hearing power for good by spying on the teachers in the hallway. The image of the girl-bunny on the cover of the book is a representation of how she felt – superhero-like – and the author is careful to say that her experience of deafness is hers alone but her experience of being a kid searching for a true friend will seem genuine to all.
These are sublime, universal stories which will capture the hearts of families. The books are as brave and bright as the children who will enjoy reading them. Kids just like Auggie, CeCe, Lily, Dunkin, Ravi and Joe are here in our library and these books, and so many others, are ready for them to love.