OMG We Still Recommend!: Adventures with One-Parent Families

It’s We Recommend! In which we post a request that's been sent to us, and do our best to get that person the right book. Know a kid who needs a book to read? Send us (thediamondinthewindow (at) gmail (dot) com) his or her likes, dislikes, favorites, quirks, and any other reading information that might be helpful, and we will think on it, and pose it to our oh-so-helpful readers. And look in the comments—all the best recommendations are there.

Oh, it has been a long, long time! Books have come and gone, blogs have vanished, and I have been doing a bunch of other things, but at the back of my mind ye olde Diamond in the Window has been simmering. And then I got a real live email in my inbox, asking us to recommend a book, and I thought: yes! In this difficult and troubling world, of course I want to recommend books if I can. So let's get the old gang together and see if we can figure out a book for this reader.

Recently I’ve been bemoaning the lack of children’s books that do not fetishize the nuclear family—and I thought, I know who might be able to help!

So, brief background, recently separated from my husband.  Our son is eight.  He loves the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, Wayside School.  He’s enjoyed a few Roald Dahl books but not enough that we’ve read them repeatedly, and he still loves picture books—Island Boy by Barbara Cooney is a favorite right now.  He likes adventure and humor and a little bit of magic, and self-sufficient kid protagonists.  I’d really love to have something wonderful to read with him that features a single parent or divorced parents or same-sex parents as something unremarkable, you know? Not a book ABOUT divorce, but a book where some kid with divorced parents has a fabulous adventure. I would so appreciate suggestions!

Now this is a challenge! It's tough—a lot of books that have one parent, but are too mature for an 8-year-old—To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, One Hundred Spaghetti Strings,and When You Reach Me all fall under that category. So great! But maybe more for someone who is 10, or even 12? Then there are books that are just right age-wise and have a single parent, but part of the story arc is about matching that parent up again to a mate: Half-Magic by Edward Eager fits here nicely, and it is wonderful, but I am not sure that this is a message that is comfortable. The Roald Dahl books make a lot of sense, but our kid here is not loving them. So I have come up with these old school books that I think might just possibly work. Maybe. 

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Oh how I love The Magician's Nephew. Digory Kirke lives with his mother only, who is very sick (so that's a bit of a sticky situation) and his foolish terrible uncle. It's magical and wonderful and I still think about the magic rings. So—maybe. Though the sick mom thing is troubling.

And then there's this:

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I think I never knew that this was a sequel to Freaky Friday, but it didn't matter—it was great. The narrator is Annabel, but Boris, who is a major character, lives with his mom and is the hub around which the story revolves. And it's funny, and magical, and terrific.

But! I am 100% sure that there are more modern books that would be even more perfect. So, readers, if there are any of you out there still: help a family out! What should this 8-year-old read?

Sick Books

Chestnut has strep throat. This used to happen all the time. One, or both, would be sick. It would start mid-October with school and colder weather, and then intensify through the winter—colds! Flus! Ear infections! One year, when they were both small, we went something like 49 days straight with at least one person sick enough to stay home every single day.

They are not little anymore. Chestnut is 16, Diana is 18, and children's literature has been pretty much absent from our house for a long while. But when people are sick, especially when they feel very terrible, comfort is essential.

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This is what gave Chestnut comfort today. It was, as she said, an almost perfect sick book, with sentences a person could glide through, a thrilling and playful momentum. She read it after the first dose of antibiotics and before the second, and then she said, "Do we have another book like that? One that's perfect to read when you're sick? I mean, no book could be as perfect for when you're sick as Shining Through."

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That book, she believes, is the perfect book to read when you're sick: comforting and exciting and dreamy all at once. Me, I love to read Rich Men, Single Women. And I did post once on my belief that there is a book for every psychic ailment

But once she was done with Hill House, I was stuck. Somehow I couldn't think of the next one to offer—the perfect thing to get a person through until the antibiotics kick in. So I have to ask: what do you guys do?

On Sad Books

For all my crowing about One Hundred Spaghetti Strings, I had never had Chestnut read it. It's funny, because when Jen was working on it, I kept thinking about how great it would be for Chestnut—food, and family drama, and love. All of these are things that she's really interested in, she's that sort of reader. Sara Plain and Tall, for instance, was incredibly important to her.

But that was back in the day. She's 15 now, and she reads newspapers and adult novels and complicated philosophers. She reads books on education policy and gets really angry, and she reads sophisticated science fiction (Stephen Baxter FTW!) and is moved. It seemed like the time for the moving, realistic middle grade novel had passed her by, just because it takes too long for books to be published, and too short for kids to grow up.

But I got my copy at a reading, and I brought it home, and I said (diffidently, I swear it), "You might like this, it's by a friend of mine, you know her, she's—."

"Fine, whatever." It did not get picked up in that moment.

But canny parent that I am, I left it there on the coffee table, knowing people forget to bring things with them, and are compulsive readers, and will likely pick up any book that is at hand. And so she did.

I saw her reading it on and off through the day, and that evening when friends came over for drinks (our friends, don't worry, not hers) she skulked upstairs without even saying much of a hello. And I thought, "Eh, she's 15, that's how it goes."

Except it turns out that she wasn't being 15 exactly. She was crying—over Steffy (the book's heroine), over how families are supposed to work in a certain way, and sometimes they don't. Just over a sad book. Like one does.

She told me all this the next day, when we were getting ready to head out of town. "It was so good, but so sad."

"Yeah."

And then as we were packing, she said, "Do you have any other really sad books? I want to read one. Do you ever think about how sometimes reading something sad, and being sad, feels like it fixes something inside you?"

I do think about that. I think about that now.

Oh This Is Such a Good Book!

I have been waiting for MONTHS to talk about how great this book is. And now it is publication week!

First, I must get out of the way that I know the author, and love the author, and have read the book through its development. Disclosure: perhaps my proximity to it and her have warped my good sense and bewitched me, making my judgment untrustworthy. Fair warning.

The truth is, though, that I think I have the happy circumstance that a person I like has written an excellent book. Such a good book!

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If you happen to know a kid, particularly a kid who likes to cook, or maybe likes to eat, or maybe just likes to read—someone who is ready to read about kids dealing with hard things—then you must go and buy that kid this book immediately. Here's the thing that kills me about it: there are so many books with a sweet, good character at the center. And then there are the books with difficult, sometimes brutal, reality in them. But this book? This book has both. Sweetness faced with reality.

So find yourself a kid who needs something really good to read, especially if it happens to be a kid between the ages of 8 and 12 who's been struggling with the challenges of the world. You can read this book, and that kid can read this book, and you can talk about how family is sometimes hard, and things don't always turn out how you'd expect. and people can be great anyway.

And while you're at it, give the rest of us the name the last book like this you read—put it in the comments. We could all use a bit more like this, I think.

Another World

Even with Ye Olde Blogge's age and infirmity in this ongoing internet revolution, people and companies still send me books, either in a corporate sort of way, or a "Hey, my friend wrote this, do you want to write about it?" sort of way. All of these suggestions I view with great skepticism, as suits my perverse and contrary nature. "Oh, you have a book you think I'll like? Then I won't like it very much, will I?" seems to be my gut response.

However, I like to believe (or at least, hope) that beneath my hard-shell exterior lurks an open mind. And maybe it's even true? Because guess what, everyone: my friend recommended that I read this book, and it is kind of amazing:

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It's a young adult book (I guess? Maybe?) and the most important and central thing I can say about it is that it did that thing where it brought me to another world so I could see it and feel lit and believe it. The basic setup is way too of-the-moment: A mother and daughter come from Haiti, the daughter makes it through customs since she was born in the US, the mother is detained by immigration, the daughter goes on alone to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit.

The author, blessedly, doesn't skate over the complexity here, and no one is a saint—or even a full-on sinner. Instead, we meet characters who are complex and torn and troubled, and we end up having to see the world from their point of view.

Caveats: The story gets caught up in itself, if that makes sense: too focused on what will happen next rather than the people. The symbolism can be heavy-handed. And I am not particularly fond of the interwoven chapters in each character's voice device. But? These are quibbles: the book is well worth reading, and it pulled at me in some essential way. Read it, give it to a reader, expand your world.