Monday, February 25, 2013

October Mourning, by Leslea Newman

Title:  October Mourning
Author:  Leslea Newman
Publisher:  Candlewick
Year:  2012
Pages:  128
Genre:  Poetry
Themes:  Social Justice
Age Range:  7th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was LeslĂ©a Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

This year, the elementary literacy coordinator for my school district (and good friend!) included the list of Stonewall Awards winners in her yearly round-up from the American Library Association.  This fact in and of itself-that a district-wide newsletter about award winning books for children and young adults should include the winner in the LGBT category-highlights exactly why Matthew Shepard deserves to be remembered.  It's been 15 years since he was beaten and tied to a fence, all for the fact of being gay, and in that time our country has changed enormously in regards to how gays and lesbians are perceived and portrayed in our society.  Matthew Shepard wasn't an activist, he didn't set out to change the culture, but what happened to him in a small city in Wyoming touched the hearts and minds of the nation.

Newman's poems are haunting, brutal, lyrical, painful, and hopeful in turns.  At varying times during the cycle she becomes the fence, the police, the parents, the killers, and the nation.  I was frequently brought to tears by the imagery she creates, based on the actual accounts of people familiar with the crime and with Matthew himself.  Newman, a pioneer in writing about gay themes for children, has given us in October Mourning a set of poems that can help to educate a new generation of youth into the circumstances of Shepard's life and death, and the profound impact that it had on the rest of us.  The world has changed so fast, and children and youth growing up today may have no idea how we got here...Newman's poems reflect a part of our shared history-albeit a painful one-that should never be forgotten.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Absolute Value of Mike, by Kathryn Erskine

Title:  The Absolute Value of Mike
Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Publisher:  Philomel
Year:  2011
Pages:  256
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Family, Loss, Belonging
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.
I loved this book!  Erskine has created such a quirky cast of characters, each deeply flawed but with their own set of endearing qualities-Moo, who refuses to admit the limitations of age and health; Poppy, stunned into complete withdrawal from the world by the death of his son; Past, who finds that running away from loss in a small town is easier said than done; and Mike himself, who needs the nudge of an entire community to recognize his own worth.  Erskine returns to one of the motifs of her earlier work, Mockingbird, when strongly implies that Mike's dad, the math genius, is also on the autism spectrum.  In that regard, this book gives the reader an understanding of what it may be like to be the child of someone who has difficulty expressing the emotional connections they feel with others.

The detailed characterization sets the perfect foundation for the plot.  When Mike discovers that the town is trying to help a local minister adopt a small boy from Romania, at first he is skeptical.  How can this cast of eccentric, sometimes barely functioning people raise the money for the adoption before the deadline?  But then he sees the face of the boy, named Misha.  Misha, incidentally, is the Romanian version of Mike, and Mike immediately feels a strong connection with the little boy living an ocean away.  Misha becomes the symbol of everything that Mike has felt but never articulated or dealt with emotionally-the loss of his mother, his emotionally distant father, the feeling of abandonment and loneliness  and his deep-seated insecurities about his own abilities.  In saving Misha from the orphanage, Mike saves himself, and a few other people as well.