Prayer. Why is this simple act so difficult to capture? Trying to conjure a depiction of prayer in contemporary media, you might hear the voice of Forrest Gump's poor Jenny:
Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away from here.
Or maybe you picture little Kevin (from Home Alone) or some other character in crisis ducking into a grand, ornate church, praying in uncertain desperation. These dramatized versions of prayer are rather easy to come by, but rarely do you find the small acts of everyday prayer, especially in books for young people. Why is that? Surely we know that regardless of culture or creed, many (if not most) of our young readers are growing up in households of faith. Surely we know they need their own stories.
In Angel Thieves, author Kathi Appelt has given prayer a page or two, has drawn characters who sometimes pray and sometimes don’t, who go to church or sometimes don’t, and the alchemy of it feels right and true. The first short chapter closes with the words:
Pray if the spirit moves you.”
So, be warned: there is prayer here. But if you feel tempted to relegate this book to a sub-genre of “Christian Fiction,” do please resist the temptation. Because Christianity is so mainstream in the United States, such a majority vote in a minority-rich culture, it feels more necessary to celebrate the regular lived-lives of people of other faiths in our literature. By no means should any of us reduce our efforts to read diversely; however, it is important to note that religious diversity includes that mainstream faith that has been overrepresented for all the countless seasons before this one. It includes Soleil Broussard and her church youth group. It includes the original members of the Mother River Church of God’s Blessings who served as a safe house for those fleeing slavery. And it includes Cade, who admits
The closest he had come to any sort of regular attendance of holy territory was prowling around in old graveyards, searching for statuary that could be loosened from its moorings and lifted into the back of his father’s pickup truck. (206)
Yes, Cade (and his father) are the angel thieves from the title. And he and all the rest of the characters are real and finely drawn.
In constructing this novel, Appelt has conjured a spirit - no, several spirits. As a Middle Grades standard, the multi-vocal novel (each chapter passes the narrative between the perspectives of individual characters) cannot be denied. At its worst, this technique can be a mundane simplification, a dumbing down of narrative complexities; however, Appelt’s expertise here is vivid and rare.
The narrative centers itself in Houston, TX and dances beautifully between a range of characters (to include a body of water and a wild animal) and historical settings (from the 1800s before Texas entered the United States to the present day). Throughout, the weaving interplay is as rich and fulfilling as a chef-prepared meal. And just like that amazing meal, what happens at the very end is unexpected and lovely and slightly sad and full of hope.
Years ago, Kathi Appelt gave us The Underneath, one of the finest novels for young people of our era. Now, she has given us another moving, thought-provoking story full of real people doing real things. It deserves your real attention. And yes, you can even pray if the spirit moves you.
PS: Come back later this month for an interview with Kathi Appelt!
The Millions Year in Reading is the only way to do year-end bookish life, despite all evidence to the contrary. The best-of lists serve one of two purposes: self-congratulation for titles read or self-condemnation for titles as yet unread. In contrast, the Year in Reading pieces are more than just a list of good books. They are tiny memoirs about the books that build us. Like perusing a new friend's bookshelves, these essays offer as much insight into the reader as to the books, and thus, I could think of no better way to launch this site than with my own Year in Reading - 2019.
I have been thinking much about sisters in the final days of 2019. About Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth March. About Mary and Edith and Sybil Crawley. About women without sisters and women who get to choose their sisters and the wretched cliches of "sisterhood" that try to avoid a real reckoning with the necessity of sisters. To be a woman in the world today is a fragile enterprise; to be a woman in today's world without a sister? Unthinkable.
Anne Ursu's The Lost Girl, about identical twin sisters Lark and Iris, is a book for middle grades readers about what happens when the sisters are enrolled in separate classes for the first time and are forced to figure out who they are as individuals. This is a fine premise, one that would resonate with any young reader also facing identity-formation-stuff. Things are not always as they seem, however, as this is also a book for women, a direct message from the author to each of us still trying to figure out who we are in the world and the best way to help each other through it. This book gave me space to break into pieces, and I did. But when my tears lapsed, it set me back on my feet and assured me it was going to be okay. We are going to be okay.
Back in the fall, three books in a row offered convincing evidence that the folks writing for young people are doing the heavy lifting these days. Edward Carey's Little, Jason Reynolds' Look Both Ways, and Laura Ruby's Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All. That last featured sisters again. And girls becoming women. And tears. So much fearful trembling and so many hopeful tears. It is brilliant; they all are.
Before that was Laurie Halse Anderson and Shout, and though it is certainly possible a young(ish) reader might find great value in it, it's another one written directly to us. One blazing afternoon is all it takes to devour this memoir in verse form, the rest of your life to keep thinking about it.
Throughout the year, weekly newsletters have kept my daily reading life full, with excellent food for thought coming from authors, publishers, and thinkers like Anne Trubek, Mark Athitakis, Austin Kleon, Robin Sloan, and Sam Sifton, food editor of The New York Times. The recipes are great, but Sifton's emails alone are worth the $40 for the Cooking subscription.
This summer, the library provided much great good, perhaps none greater than the audio of Susan Orleans reading her The Library Book. This book was so much more than expected - part mystery, part history, fully inspiring for all librarians-becoming. And the only thing that has ever made me want to visit Los Angeles.
Nothing - not even a deep and abiding admiration for Song of Achilles - prepared me for how stunned into wonder I would be over Circe. Even after years of urging students to read creatively, to consider alternatives or additions to the standard narrative in the classics, I have to admit: Madeline Miller has worked some powerful magic here. Her story of Circe is THE story of Circe. It's just true, and no amount of scholarship or historicism will ever convince me otherwise. It's another one that is perfectly it's own thing and the story of every woman as well. Sisters, we all are.
Two extraordinary works of non-fiction were The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and Working by Robert Caro. Both taught me much, and both made me hunger for more by the authors. In fact, Caro's epic biography The Power Broker is now certain to be a 2020 title.
Along the way, there were a good handful of titles the rest of the world adored without my agreement. And a few that are likely to be important mostly to me. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom convinced me that Nordstrom was one of the most influential figures in publishing of all time. No exaggeration. She gave us Maurice Sendak, and for that we will never be able to repay her. Also Meindert DeJong, and if you've never read his The Wheel on the School, remedy that error and quickly. Don't let the plot summary deter you (Dutch children try to get a wagon wheel on the roof of their school in order to provide a nest for storks). It is vital reading, hopeful reading. It reminds me that we're all in this together. That our sisters (and our brothers), wherever they may be found, are not just part of life - they are life itself.
PS: For a simply stunning example of Year in Reading, click here.