Last month I volunteered to do a handful of book reports for our Houston Regional SCBWI meeting. I’m hoping someone else will step up to do picture books as I’m woefully under-read in that area. These were four recommendations that I made to our membership, not all recent, but all delightful.
The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler (illustrations by Sarah Gibb) – Series began with this book in 2003 and continues through 2015. Think Princess Diaries meets Splash with a lot of Ariel. Emily has never known her father. She lives on a boat with her mother who oddly enough has taught her to fear the water. She’s never been immersed in water in her life. She takes showers instead of baths. Then, in seventh grade she takes a swim class and learns that after a few minutes in the water she morphs into a mermaid. It’s a bit terrifying and embarrassing. She manages to hide her secret by spazzing out and skipping swim class, but starts secretly swimming in the ocean at night while her mother works. She meets and befriends another adolescent mermaid who reveals another world and community below the sea. They meet secretly because it is apparent that Emily is an illegal mermaid, the product of a marriage between a merman and a human woman. Eventually she confides in her school friend and the three of them plot to free her father from Neptune’s prison. This is a very successful and slightly Disney-like series.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (author of The One and Only Ivan) – Jackson is a in the 5th grade when the imaginary friend he had as a little kid returns. A giant cat that surfs and carries an umbrella, Crenshaw is about six feet tall but no once else can see him. Think Harvey as a cat. He’s come back, because Jackson needs him. His father is unemployed, his mother is a waitress working extra shifts. Since losing their house, they live in a motel on the brink of homelessness. His parents try to put a good face on things, but Jackson understands all too well what is happening. Crenshaw becomes his confidant and only outlet. He has assumed a lot of responsibility for his baby sister and even his parents’ happiness. He tries to act normal at school to hide this secret. But he’s depressed because he loves his school and his best friend, Marisol and knows that soon they will have to move again. When his father sells their television to Marisol’s father, the ‘cat’ is out of the bag. Once she knows his situation, Jackson imagines her pity and feels humiliated. Eventually, he confides his secret and tells her about Crenshaw as well. He’s fears she will think he’s crazy, instead she says, “Jackson, just enjoy the magic while you can, okay.”
Jackson is planning to run away and relieve the pressure on his parents, he’s even written a note. But he decides against it because his sister needs him. In the end, his parents find the note and realize the pressure he’s been under and that he deserves the truth and their confidence. In the end, their situation is resolved realistically so they can stay together and he can stay in his school. Before he leaves, Crenshaw explains that imaginary friends never really leave. They’re on call and they can come back whenever we need them. This book deals with very real issues in a soft and magical way.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo – Raymie is in middle school when her father runs off with a dental hygienist. She decides that if she wins the Little Miss Central Florida contest that her father will see it on the news and come home. So she signs up for twirling lessons and starts looking for good deeds that she can do to win the contest. Her twirling teacher is an eccentric at best, but she meets two other oddball children in the classes: Louisiana, a tiny southern belle who faints at the drop of a hat and Beverly, who is a bellicose tomboy who comes to class with bruises. They become an odd but inseparable trio and work through their separate but equally traumatizing abandonment issues. More than anything else this book reminded me of the play The Miss Firecracker Contest by Beth Henley.
Footer Davis Might Be Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught – Footer is a middle grader with a bipolar mother who has been in and out of the looney bin a few times. Her mother is home now, but maybe not for long. She’s taken to using a gun to explode snakes in the yard. Footer is more than a little afraid that her mother’s illness is hereditary and that she is going crazy. She’s been dreaming about her mother shooting someone and burning down a building. Then she finds out that two kids from her school were probably killed in a fire and their father was shot.
With her best friend and confidant Peavine, Footer has to work through her mother’s issues and play detective to figure out what happened at the farm and whether her mother killed that family. She discovers her mother’s correspondence with the kids’ father in prison. Eventually, we learn that these other children are alive and have a terrible secret. Their grandfather was abusing them on a regular basis and Footer’s mom was trying to help them get away.
Each of these middle-grade books deals with increasingly real-life situations and tragedies and the coping skills of children.