I’ve been reading some wonderful books lately, so this week I thought I’d tell you about a few of them.
First up: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I’d heard great things about this book, and it didn’t disappoint. It took me a little while to get into it, but by the end—whew! This complex, brilliantly plotted novel takes place during World War II and features a charismatic Scottish female spy who gets caught by Nazis in France, and her brave, female-pilot best friend. It’s the most intellectually satisfying and emotionally intense book I’ve read in a long time.
The two main characters, “Queenie” the spy and Maddie the pilot, each narrate half of the novel. I’m a sucker for a strong first-person voice, and both of these voices positively buzz with urgency, energy, and personality. (One of them is quite unusual: an unreliable first-person narrator who often tells her own story in the third person and authoritatively presents the thoughts and feelings of another character as if they were her own.)
As that complicated last sentence probably suggested, this is not an easy book. It’s entertaining, for sure, but it also requires careful attention and some flexibility on the part of the reader. I appreciate how much credit Wein gives teenage readers, and I like the way the structure of the book sets readers up to look back at parts of the first half once they get to the second. I wonder if this might be the kind of book that appeals to adults who like YA literature more than it appeals to young adults themselves…but I think the right high school students or advanced eighth graders would love it. I also appreciate that Wein has written a novel that celebrates courageous, strong female characters and a memorable friendship between young women.
Next, The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers is another book with a strong female protagonist and interesting narrative choices. Grounded during the summer before she starts eighth grade, Isadora “Tink” Aaron-Martin begins writing an encyclopedia of her life. The entire story of Tink’s summer and fall fits into alphabetized encyclopedia entries, beginning with “Aa” and ending with “zoo.”
Now, as someone who is currently revising a novel, I am very much aware of how difficult it is to structure a satisfying plot without trying to cram that plot into alphabetized encyclopedia entries, complete with cross-references and footnotes. When I first heard about The Encyclopedia of Me, I will admit to thinking, “Why would you make something as hard as plotting a novel even harder by telling your story in encyclopedia form?”
But Karen Rivers makes it work. Sure, Tink sometimes veers away from the topic of her encyclopedia entry (the entry on “Young, Andrew,” for instance, begins with a description of a boy named Andrew Young, but it’s really more about Tink’s relationship with her best friend Freddie Blue and her confusing connection with the blue-haired skater-boy next door, Kai). But the thing is, it’s endearing to watch Tink try to stick to the encyclopedia format while also writing about what’s on her mind. The way she navigates her encyclopedia project reveals character and provides a lot of opportunities for humor.
The Encyclopedia of Me is the kind of book I liked most when I was in middle school. It has a smart, funny, vulnerable narrator who is navigating challenging family dynamics, shifting friendships, and budding romance. I really enjoyed it and have already shared it with two middle school girls.
And finally, I also recently finished Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I’d heard a lot of buzz about this book, and I thought it generally lived up to its hype. Wonder tells the story of August Pullman, who has a severe genetic facial deformity. Auggie has always been homeschooled, but at the beginning of Wonder, his parents (and a kind, humorously named school administrator named Mr. Tushman) convince him to begin fifth grade at Beecher Prep.
Palacio alternates narrators, so readers hear from Auggie, some of his new classmates, his older sister Via, and some of her friends. I often get jarred when a book switches from one narrator to another, or I like one narrator better than the others, or I think the different narrators sound too much alike. But for me, Wonder was a powerful book because of the alternating narrators. Each narrator’s story layers on top of the ones before, adding new meaning. Sometimes, a character’s motivations didn’t quite make sense to me at first, but then when I read that character’s chapters, I saw him or her in a new light and could interpret events differently. Palacio uses these alternating narrators to develop readers’ empathy for almost all of the characters in the book, to convey how complicated people are, and to appeal to a broad age range. (While the main character Auggie is only ten, some readers who are older than ten will appreciate the perspectives of Via, a high school freshman, and her peers.) I also love the way Palacio portrays August’s family. The Pullmans aren’t perfect, but they are funny, human, and extraordinarily loving. The book has inspired a “Choose Kind” anti-bullying campaign, as well.
What great books have you been reading lately? I’d love to know your book recommendations or your thoughts on any of these books, and I am thinking of those of you who are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.