Thursday, August 20, 2009

That Takes Me Back!

It's a funny thing reading children's books for a living. Sometimes you will come across a book that takes you right back to a specific time in your childhood. And it doesn't even have to be a particularly interesting book if the emotions ring true. You can be decades away from that moment, living a perfectly fine adult life, and suddenly "pow!" you are a gawky kid again reliving some wonderful or traumatic incident.

Years ago I was in library school reading Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly for a YA class. And I wasn't all that interested or invested in the book, when a particular scene hit me and I got angry. Not about anything that was happening in the book, but rather the scene reminded me of some patently false rumors that had been spread about me in high school. And I was taken aback at how strongly those emotions still were when I had lost touch with everyone involved in the incident many years earlier. I got worried the the class would wind up being a study in dredging up old high school resentments. Luckily, the books that do this are a select few.

Cut to last week. I was reading The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club by Catherine Stier (due out on September 1st):

This is a book all about the intricacies of a social life at the ripe old age of ten. How does the savvy ten-year-old balance school, family and a burgeoning sense of self and yet still fit in? It is told from the points of view of four classmates: Kiley, the popular girl starting to be interested in boys; TJ, who is great at sports and always getting in trouble, but who also harbors a deep secret; Josh, who secretly hates sports, living under the shadow of a bully of big brother who just wants to fit in; and Anne who doesn't understand why her good friend Josh is suddenly really mean and wants to take revenge on him. Stier does a very good job of giving each kid a distinct narrative voice, and letting them each be a well-rounded character instead of a stereotype.

As an adult reading this book, the situations just felt so silly and quite ridiculous. The older brother is teasing Josh about "liking" Anne, so he screams that he hates her and she overhears and wants revenge. TJ gets in trouble because he throws a snowball through a basketball hoop when snowballs are forbidden at school. And so on and so forth.

But all of the situations are so plausible for a ten-year-old. In my elementary school we could only have "no-ball snowball fights" for safety. And at ten I accidentally cut up the face of a friend of mine when I held my "no-ball" in my hand too long and it turned to sharp icy shards before I threw it. She never turned me in, thank goodness, (and Dr. Mason if you ever read this, yes it was me, so what is the interest on a 20-year-old punishment?) but the whole class got a stern lecture.

Reading this book I could see ten-year-old me loving all the machinations within the relationships and eagerly following the developments. And I had a moment of being whisked back to the Valentine's Day party in 5th grade at someone's house. I got asked to dance by the boy I had been crushing on for 3 years, but saying yes would mean going into the room with the popular kids so I said no. And I spent years kicking myself for blowing my one big chance. (For the record I have been happily married for almost 8 years, and when last I saw this guy at a high school reunion he was a very happy newlywed.)

And that is the power of a children's book that is emotionally truthful. This is not the world's greatest children's literature, and it's not destined to win prizes. But it will ring true to the kids going through this stage. And I would gladly recommend it for kids in grades 4-6 who like contemporary school stories that aren't too heavy (just the right balance of problems with humor). The chapters are each only a few pages long, making it easy to zip through in big gulps, or take in snippets depending on the reader.

My big disappointment is that the story resolves just before the promised big dance at camp. I felt cheated out of the dance scene which would have made a nice closer and denouement. I would imagine many readers would feel the same way.

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

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