. . . and by “us” I mean (mainly) adults. I read two books this weekend that I think fit into this category. One was a middle grade novel (Summer of the Gypsy Moths, by Sara Pennypacker), the other YA (The Children and the Wolves, by Adam Rapp).
These are the kind of books that you just know are going to be challenged sometime, somewhere, in a school or public library. And they make you stop and think about how, as a librarian and defender of intellectual freedom, you’re going to defend them.
Let’s start with Summer of the Gypsy Moths. I liked the book enormously, I think it was very well written, and it was nicely resolved. There were many heartfelt moments, as well as some great funny ones, and the whole thing had an arc that made sense. But if there was hollering over the use of the word “scrotum” in the Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, I can’t imagine that there won’t be complaints about a middle-grade novel in which two 12-year-old girls bury a dead woman’s body in the garden and keep her death hidden all summer.
So, for me, this would be an easy book to defend. As Betsy Bird said in her review, Pennypacker manages the corpse-moving sequence with finesse and appropriate humor, relying “on kids’ cold-hearted assumptions that old people die all the time while still making the woman warm enough so that we feel at least a twinge of regret that she’s gone.”
Nevertheless, I’m sure it’s going to make some adults uncomfortable, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out, especially if the book gets any Newbery love come January. Kids, I think, will accept it as it is. This is the sort of book that I would have loved as a kid, and probably enjoyed reading and re-reading. I tended to like books about children searching for their place in the world and their “real” family.
The other book, The Children and the Wolves, I have very different feelings about. I have never quite gotten on the Adam Rapp bandwagon (although I have to say, I at least appreciate the fact that he keeps his books relatively short!). I know what to expect: more or less unremitting bleakness and kids who use drugs and sex to dull the grimness of their own lives. This book, like 33 Snowfish, is told from different points of view, and, actually, like with 33 Snowfish, I had some trouble with the voices.
Bounce’s sections were fine for me–she was a highly intelligent psychopath, and that came across, even if I couldn’t possibly like her character. I could even feel a little sorry for her because of the way her parents more or less abandoned her. But when I read Orange and Wiggins’ sections, I sometimes had to go back to recall who was talking. Also, I felt there were inconsistencies in Wiggins’ parts–sometimes the language seemed more conventional than others. I also didn’t buy the parts narrated by “Frog.” She didn’t sound like a 3-year-old to me, and there were other inconsistencies, like her losing a baby tooth (unless it was meant to indicate that she was malnourished?).
So the thing about this book is that it appalled me but at the same time I feel like I’m looking for things to find wrong with it (like inconsistencies and narrative voice) so that I can just dismiss it and don’t have to acknowledge its strengths. I can’t actually think of a single teen that I would recommend this to, but on the other hand, I can imagine that there are teens who would find it fascinating and gripping.
So here’s a book that really does make me feel uncomfortable. It would take all of the skills I learned in library school and honed on the job to talk to a parent who came to me to complain about this book. I absolutely believe that it belongs in libraries, and I would absolutely defend the right of a teen to read it, but at the same time, I would have a great deal of sympathy for a parent who didn’t want their teenager exposed to it. I think this would have to be one of those, “Maybe you should read and talk about it together” conversations.
Just one more thought: I think what bothers me most about this book is that I can’t really find anything to “like” about it. I didn’t even think the ending really redeemed it. That is perhaps what makes it different for me from other books in which horrible things happen. (I’m thinking here of two books I love, Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan, and America, by E.R. Franks.) I hope I’m not just saying that I want my books to have hopeful endings. I think it’s more than that–I think it’s probably related to that overall sense of what I learned from the book–the ideas, as I’ve said here before.
Am I letting my discomfort with the awfulness of the situation in the book interfere with my ability to see what else Rapp was doing here?