Wednesday, June 06, 2007



An unusual surge of energy came over Emma-Jean, very possibly a thrill, as she took a step toward Colleen. She had the feeling of walking through an invisible door, the door that had always seemed to separate her from her fellow seventh graders.
Surprisingly, the door was wide open.

Emma-Jean Lazarus approaches her 7th grade class with the distant, bemused air of a cultural anthropologist, and years of careful observation have culminated in a confidence that she can solve her cohorts' condundrums, whether they be botched invitations, false accusations by teachers, or grown-ups who fall in love when it is clearly not a good idea. Unfortunately, Emma-Jean's methodology for problem-solving generally involves forgery, and she manages to complicate things more often than not.

The true beauty of this first novel is the deep compassion for outsider Emma-Jean, who takes pride in being "strange" (dictionary definition: extraordinary, remarkable, singular), who rationalizes the world according to the theories of Jules Henri Poincaré (a mathematician held in high esteem by her deceased father), and manages to have a real affection for her classmates despite the lack of inclusion in their circles. There is also strong attention given to other characters: the grown-ups are flawed but appropriately involved and refreshingly likable; the boys are often oblivious to machinations for and against them ("Perhaps there was more to Will Keeler than mediocre grades and exceptional basketball skills. Perhaps he posessed a talent for old-fashioned gallantry that went largely unnoticed in the modern hallways of William Gladstone Middle School") and popular Colleen, cheerful and repressive, cares desperately and distractingly about what other people think ("She wished she could recapture the feeling she'd had the other day at school, when for just a few moments she really didn't care what Laura Gilroy thought of her. But that had lasted no longer than the flavor in a stick of sugarless bubble gum").

Emma-Jean's developmentally pitch-perfect delusions of her own power are poignant, but even more stirring is the the underlying message that being nice and having good intentions counts for something in this world, even when the best laid plans of mice and men and middle school girls often go awry. Also impressive was this new author's ability to write a book in third person that feels as confidential as first person...aspiring authors, take note of her formidable technique. This novel is that rare realistic fiction that works as a read-aloud for older kids, and is also a really perfect choice for those 'tweeners who are not quite ready for the pallor of some hard-core young adult fiction. It's light without feeling facile, and features strong characters that will have plenty of middle-schoolers saying, "hey, that's me!" (11 and up)

Also of interest:
An extra dose of intermediate girl-power!
It is very rare to find a book in which you cannot manage to turn a page without laughing, but Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner MILLICENT MIN: GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee (Scholastic) is that book. Millicent's tentative, earnest steps toward achieving every pre-teen girl's dream--making and keeping a real best friend--loom larger even than Millicent's goal to win the Field's Medal, the highest mathematical honor a person under forty can achieve. ("It would be great to do all this by age twenty but I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. Therefore, if it doesn't happen until I am, say, twenty-three, that's fine with me.") As Millicent tutors a jock named Stanford (who stars in his own sequel, STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG TIME), survives her first sleepover, spikes a point for her volleyball team and tries valiantly to hide her genius from her ebullient friend Emily, she learns that there are book smarts and people smarts, and both are important. It's nice to have a heroine who is more concerned with learning curves than body curves, and her character's development is gradual and convincing and a pleasure to read. Millicent is the valedictorian of the intermediate reading list (no Field's Medal, I know, but it will have to do for now). (11 and up)

DIARY OF A WOULD-BE PRINCESS by Jessica Green (Charlesbridge) shows us that mean girls and typecasts are an international malaise, as an Australian girl does some clumsy social climbing. Episodic writing is hilarious in parts, and readers sympathize with feel for the heroine as her party goes exactly as unplanned, she trips over her own true talents for public speaking and struggles with the making and keeping of friends...the best one being a boy. (11 and up)

MAKEOVERS BY MARCIA by Claudia Mills (Farrar Straus Giroux) Marcia is less than thrilled when she discovers her eighth grade community service project will entail visits to the local nursing home. Distracted by pre-teen concerns like her perceived weight gain, difficulties in art class and the upcoming dance, working with a bunch of old people is last on her list. When her savvy sister suggests she combine her talent and interest in makeup with her requisite visits, it sets off a series of connections that, in the end, help Marcia get her priorities straight. Mills is a too-often overlooked talent when it comes to the delicate art of capturing the voice of the 'tweenager: "Of course, it was only the second week of school, and Marcia knew that no boy was even thinking of asking a girl to the dance yet. It would take some serious, but subtle, manipulating by the girls to plant the seed of that thought in the dry, stony soil of an eighth grade boy's brain." Marcia's magazine-inspired machinations backfire hilariously, and her relationships with the elderly blossom in a way that is both believable and uncontrived. A nice balance is achieved between who Marcia is trying to be and who she really is, and make her a character that many girls will look upon with both sympathy and empathy. Emotional depth, laugh-out-loud humor and a rhythm that matches the heartbeat of its intended audience mark this well-written intergenerational story that will inspire community service, self-esteem and an appetite for more books by the author. (11 and up)

IDA B. AND HER PLANS TO MAXIMIZE FUN, AVOID DISASTER AND (POSSIBLY) SAVE THE WORLD by Katherine Hannigan (Greenwillow) The unconventional heroine of this award-winning book is homeschooled, and likes her cozy world built around her by her loving parents, but when her mother's health takes a turn for the worse, the family must sell part of their beloved orchard, and Ida B. must go to a public school. Ida B's character is a standout as a philosophical, inventive and imaginative, but also deeply flawed, as she has many preconceptions about people who are not like her (and in need of her correction), and harbors a bit of a mean streak. Ultimately she freewheels out of the orbit in which her only-child self was once the gravitational force, but whether you like her or not, it's hard to get this precocious protagonist out of your mind. A must for free-spirits and tree-spirits. (10 and up)

On a personal note
I recently had the massive pinch-me-I'm-dreaming honor of sharing a podium with the legendary National Book Award and Newbery-winning author Katherine Paterson (of BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA fame) at the recent conference for the International Reading Association in Toronto. We both read aloud from our work, and we agreed that her character Rosa and my character Paris would have made good friends. Everyone was wildly impressed with the charming Italian affect Katherine gave to the characters in her recent historical fiction, BREAD AND ROSES, TOO. I was greatly relieved at how absolutely kind and personable she was, especially since I don't think I could have been more nervous about meeting her than if I were meeting the Queen of England. Katherine Paterson in fact met the Queen of Sweden this year to receive the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which is pretty much the Nobel Prize for children's literature.

At the conference, she paraphrased from her lecture given in Stockholm to the breathless teachers in the room:

“I’m very Biblically oriented, and so for me the most important thing
is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children and young people, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”

This lecture was personally inspiring to me, as I have often been questioned about why I went back to teaching when my writing career was in full swing. It was hard to explain the spiritual and pragmatic need for a balance between writing and teaching; I did not see the sense of writing books unless I was also working to support kids directly so they could and would read. Whether secular or not, teaching really does feel like the word is being made flesh, and is a natural compliment to the communication and sharing intrinsic to writing. Thank you, Katherine Paterson, for articulating that connection so meaningfully, and acknowledging the work of teachers. There was not a dry eye in the house, as they say! More of Katherine Paterson's brilliant and inspirational essays and lectures have been compiled in the hard-to-find treasure THE INVISIBLE CHILD: ON READING AND WRITING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, and Ms. Paterson has been featured in Gail McMeekin's 12 SECRETS OF HIGHLY CREATIVE WOMEN: A PORTABLE MENTOR. Writing, read-aloud and giving lectures that resonate, this is a woman with many talents and gifts; the world is a better place because she is in it.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Erin said...

Thank you for your review of 'Emma-Jean Lazarus' captured the heart of the book and the way I felt about it when done reading just perfectly.

Anonymous said...

I agree. This was a treat to read. Emma Jean will stay in the hearts of all readers young and old.

Denise said...

I love Ida B. and have read it a couple of times now. Once to my third graders---they esp. liked the part about the soap mask.

Esme--I just discovered this blog and look forward to using it to plan this coming year's student book club! This past year we read Vive La Paris and had a really great discussion about it. I was amazed at how much the racial issues it brought up weren't at the forefront of our talks. They seemed way more interested in the family dynamics esp. between Michael and Paris. They also talked a lot about the older brother and his girlfriend getting pregnant and how generous it was for Paris to want to give her money to them at the end. A big discussion for fourth and fifth graders!

Thanks for all you do for readers of all ages!


EllenK said...

Thanks for the indepth reviews of some great kids' books. I have a sense of the kinds of books I am looking for, but I'm overwhelmed by sheer quantity of books. So--your reviews are very useful.


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