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."


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.

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:


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.

We Recommend: Social Justice for a Teenage Girl

I have no idea what is happening with our sudden spate of We Recommends, but I am happy about it (even though I may have forgotten how to spell recommend, or at least, I've lost my confidence about it). If you 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.

For those of you who like a challenge, we are here for you! Here we go, with an email from a devoted aunt, whose niece is about to turn 17 and requests a book for her birthday:

She's read and loved Jacqueline Woodson's books, including, recently, Another Brooklyn.
In life she cares about social justice. Recently said she she might want to go into politics which if she does, wow! She's also liked baking and seems to like shopping. Is going to be a peer leader at her school next year – something she worked hard to compete for.
I think she wants novels now, which is great. She's an avid reader. 
And not to get too tedious and demographic, but, I think it'd actually be cool if she read a book with an Irish, or part Irish, female main character, or even character somewhere! And another with a Jewish, or part Jewish, female main character, or again, a character somewhere. The book doesn't have to be a social argument, that's not what I'm saying. Not sure how many of those titles have ever crossed her path. Or if they have, not for a very very very long time. Maybe for the first, Charming Billy? I've never read Allegra Goodman – one of hers? 
But maybe those are too old for her? I don't know. Hmm….
Sure, you're thinking, social justice for a teenage girl is a piece of cake. But then you add on all the things and you feel like: eek, does the right book exist anywhere? That elusive beast, the perfectly right book?
When I first wrote back to her, I thought about That Night by Alice McDermott, and also Allegra Goodman's sci-fi novel. Neither of these felt just right. Then I thought about The Poisonwood Bible, but again—close, but no cigar. Social justice, but not the demographic particularity (that while not essential, is still a fun challenge). I thought about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but that might be too young? Ditto All of a Kind Family. Then I thought about the excellent story collection, Fools, by Joan Silber, but a story collection might not make sense?
Oh! OK, this is all over the news, and maybe she already read it, and it doesn't correspond to anything she's asking about, but here's my crazy left-field guess:
Maybe? Possibly? 
Anyway, I bet many of you have better ideas than I, and if any of you hit all these requirements? You win a prize.*
*Fair warning: It is possible that the prize will be the satisfaction of knowing you've done an amazing thing.

Something to Give Your Earnest, Yearning, Hopeful Reader

It may sometimes seem (sometimes) that life is an endless slog through a morass of hypocrisy and cynicism. Which—OK, maybe it is. But we can all work and try for it to be otherwise, plus there is the issue of: If that is a big part of what life is, what can you give a kid to read that will help them to rise above it? Or at least, convince them that life is bigger than the petty television politics they may see around them?

Well first of all, the truth is that almost anything a kid reads is going to be larger than what they see on TV, for instance. But I can tell you, that what worked for Chestnut lately, was this:


This book moved my girl. Which is, admittedly, not such a difficult thing to do. But she is still grappling with the ideas and geographies and questions it brings up long after reading it for the first time. Which is, right now, an extremely helpful antidote. 

Weird, or the Benefits of Continuing on With a Book You’re Not Sure About

So many—perhaps too many—feelings about the word weird. 

I spelled it wrong for a long time.

I vacillate (or vacillated) between being shamed by it and viewing it as a badge of honor.

I spent some time acknowledging that it is a useful word, and frightening, because truly some people, things, occurrences ostentatiously don't fit into our expected experience, and there is a deep fear with leaving that behind.

I want to accept all weird things, in part because I know myself to be at least somewhat weird (though I believe I generally pass as not weird, but I could be wrong about this).

But sometimes the weird scares me. And I retreat from it.

So I read a book for my book group, one I highly doubt I would have picked up had I not been in a book group.


When I first started reading it, it made me mad. Defensive, somehow, as though I was being accused of not being smart enough, or hard working enough, or ambitious enough (in the large intellectual sense). I wanted to put it down, and I would have put it down had I not been reading it for book group.

But I didn't, and things began to change. It hit me, perhaps one third of the way through, that she was weird. I mean, really weird. Weird enough to connect to a guy in the book who is completely and totally weird, and they were weird together. Weirder—at least as far as I can tell—than I am.

And I wonder: is that part of it? Like, weird is OK if you're as weird as I am and no weirder? Except, isn't that pretty much running from weirdness? Because if everyone thought that, no one would really be OK with weirdness at all.

I'm not being as clear as I mean to be, in part because I'm still grappling with the ideas in the book, which are wide reaching and interesting and surprising. The book made me think anew in all sorts of good ways, it reminded me that the world is larger and allows far more than we ever really take or acknowledge.

Maybe it begins with not saying weird? With somehow not typing or labeling behavior at all, merely witnessing it? Is that even possible? What do you think?