I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for when I began gathering books for this post, so my inner eleven year old took over. I happily wandered down the library aisles until my tote bag was nearly too heavy to lift. Once back home, I stacked up the books and tried to figure out how to make a list from my selections. Initially, I thought I would write about a handful of silly and absurd books, but four realistic stories nabbed my heart instead. I’ll save the silly for another day. Today, I want to share the stories of Callum, Annie, Jason, and Grady. Out of my library day stash, these are the books I connected with, and amazingly enough they also connected to each other. These are stories of bikes, baseball, and birds — lies and secrets — sorrow and friendship. These are tales of kids being brave, learning from mistakes, and reaching beyond themselves.
I’ll begin with Gill Lewis’s debut novel, WILD WINGS, which is set in Scotland. The story begins when Callum and his friends discover Iona, the granddaughter of a much despised villager, fishing barehanded in the river. Even though she is trespassing on his family’s land, Callum sticks up for her. In turn, she shares a secret. For the first time in a hundred years, ospreys are nesting in the mountains. After tragedy strikes, these great birds comfort Callum and connect him to a sickly girl in Gambia. At times this story is both heart wrenching and heart warming. But the adventures aren’t over at the end. Readers can follow the migration pattern of an actual satellite tracked osprey on Ms. Lewis’s blog and relive Callum’s excitement when he tracks his osprey’s journey from Scotland to Gambia and back again.
WING NUT by M.J. Auch is another story of a boy and birds. Twelve year old Grady and his mom have been on the move ever since his dad died. Grady’s main source of comfort is a well-worn copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Even though she’s just a made-up character in a book, Grady figures that Gilly had a worse life than he did. Reading her story makes him feel safe, especially when they take off from the Sunward Path Commune in a rusty car held together with duct tape. The car, which isn’t even worth selling for parts, breaks down in rural Pennsylvania. They’re stuck until his mom takes on a job as caretaker for a crotchety old man named Charlie Fernwald. Grady’s mom manages to get vegetables into Mr. Fernwald, and Mr. Fernwald manages to teach Grady a thing or two about mechanics and purple martins. But Grady, like most twelve year old boys, has a mind of his own, and good intentions turn into a bad idea. It takes a lot of forgiveness, understanding, and letting go for this story to come to a happy end. Readers who like this book might also enjoy ONE HANDED CATCH by M.J. Auch.
FINDING BUCK McHENRY is one of many books penned by Alfred Slote, a prolific author of science fiction and sports stories. Although this particular book was published a decade ago, I believe young readers can still connect to the timeless story. However, you might have to explain a few things first – mainly stationary phones, phone books, and VHS tapes. But there are things that do not change over the years – the despair of being cut from your team, the thrill of discovering a baseball legend, and the angst of discovering how deeply your mistakes hurt others. Like Callum, in WILD WINGS, Jason has to keep a secret, but he’s not very good at it. The assumptions and slips of tongue spin out of control like a bad pitch. Jason learns that mistakes don’t necessarily mean that you’ve ruined everything, but that you do have to try to patch things up. This book is part baseball story and part mystery, but it also includes issues concerning racism, grief, and divorce. Readers will get a glimpse of the days when African-Americans were prohibited from playing major league baseball in the United States. And they’ll see what happens when a girl wants to join a boy’s baseball team. If this is beginning to sound like a made for t.v. movie, you’re right. It is, and it’s still available on DVD or through streaming on Netflix. Readers who like this story may also like Mr. Slote’s book, THE TRADING GAME.
Being the mother of two sons, it’s no wonder that I gravitate toward boy books. However, the last book on my list, UMBRELLA SUMMER by Lisa Graff, is about Annie Richardson, an adventurous girl who turns into a worry wart after her twelve year old brother suddenly dies from an undiagnosed heart condition. Annie won’t ride her bike unless she’s wearing a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, and ankle bandages. She’s stopped eating hotdogs, and there’s no way she’s going to build backyard obstacle courses like she used to. She even swipes a medical book so she can keep ahead of any mysterious symptoms which may befall her. Everyone worries about Annie’s worries. However, she doesn’t become concerned about herself until her best friend’s father describes her with a word taken from his word wall, a giant chalkboard in the kitchen. There’s something about despondent that makes Annie very uncomfortable. Like Grady in WING NUT, Annie also draws comfort from a book, a copy of Charlotte’s Web given to her by a neighbor. This is where she finds a better word to live by. Other books by Lisa Graff include THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF BERNETTA WALLFLOWER amd THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE.
In each of these four books, at least one character deals with loss and grief, whether it is of a friend, a pet, a sibling, a parent, or a whole family. Also, each of the main characters has a flaw that not only complicates his or her own life, but also causes trouble for those they care about most. Now you might wonder why I would classify stories like these under the title “Happy Endings.” That’s pretty simple to explain. We all make mistakes and we all suffer misfortune, but the right choices afterwards can often transform hurt to happiness.