Harry Potter and the Cursed Child–JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne


The day I began reading this long-awaited latest Harry Potter adventure, I saw an image on Twitter of a birthday gift Rowling received from her son:  a mug with an owl, below which reads Irritable Owl Syndrome and above which reads Fuck Off.  The caption read “a most hilariously inappropriate birthday gift from a son.”  Her son is 13.

Then I read the Cursed Child, which revolves around parents and teenage children and parents’ ability–and inability–to see their children for who they are rather than who they wish they themselves had been/were.  Harry Potter, who, while famous, was never quite perfect, either in school or with his friends, continues these weaknesses as an adult.  At work he prefers to act in the field rather than keep up with paperwork.  At home he strives to be the right father without having exactly experienced having a father–and having had a push/pull relationship with his father-figure, Dumbledore.  James, his eldest son, to whom everything comes easily, seems to have been an easy child to parent.  Albus Severus Potter, however, more introverted, struggles to live in his father’s famous shadow, particularly once he arrives at Hogwarts, where he’s sorted into Slytherin and becomes friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius.  Scorpius is a kind-hearted, studious boy who, shortly after starting school, loses his mother and struggles with his grief with a father who is not overly demonstrative.

Rowling touches on familiar themes for children–the difficulty of choosing between right and wrong, the need for recognition and acknowledgement of our gifts, and the power of loneliness and humiliation–as well as the inability to change the past, no matter how rightly-intentioned we may be.

The comparisons between Harry/Albus and Rowling and her son are obvious.  Growing up in the shadow of Rowling, revered as next to God by many people under 50 (and some over), cannot be easy.  I cannot imagine having to turn in a piece of creative writing to anyone knowing Rowling was my mother.  Or try to live up to her other male creation in any other way.

Many advice columnists recommend talking to teenagers while in the car or doing some other activity because teenagers (and adults, really) are more likely to feel safe to engage in emotional topics when they are not engaged in eye contact or intense one-on-one conversation (let’s have a talk scares nearly everyone I know).  I wonder if Rowling, through her play, is talking to her son without eye contact.  Telling him she will screw up, but that she loves him, recognizes him as his own person with his own talents, is proud of him, and knows he is capable of making it on his own merits.  Or maybe she is just helping the rest of us have that conversation.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this latest chapter and, despite some initial concerns about how reading a screenplay would change the experience, quickly found myself again in the world of Harry Potter–a place that, thanks to Rowling, is always available for a quick get away.

Finished 8/4/16


Orphan Train–Christina Baker Kline

I know loads of readers have blogged about this book.  I heard about it on a public radio show on a late Saturday afternoon and was intrigued.  I had watched a documentary on the orphan trains and read some articles, so a novelized version for young adults seemed like a great idea.

The old woman whose attic young delinquent Molly is supposed to clean, Vivian, is a vibrant character.  We hear most about her, both in the present and, through flashback chapters, in her childhood coming from Ireland to New York and then, via the orphan train, to Minnesota.  I loved this story line.  Molly’s character, not really an orphan, with a dead father and a troubled mother, seems a little too easy.  In and out of various foster homes where she is never really loved and often mistreated, Molly provides a modern reaction to the situation in which Vivian found herself.  I was struck by how much worse Vivian’s situation was, and yet how much more positive she remained.  Does Baker Kline want us to see foster care as worst than the orphan trains?  Equivalent?  That we shudder at the story of the orphan trains, but are satisfied with the flaws of foster care?

Baker Kline goes one step too far in making Molly part Native American, which gives her yet another strike in our society.  I was not sure why just being a child badly treated by the foster system was not enough and ended up wondering if it was a way to check off another box for potential school reading.

This book has been very popular with reading groups, particularly mother-daughter reading groups.  I would love to see it made into a movie.  Christopher Monger is tasked with adapting it for the screen and Broad Green have optioned it for the big screen.

Finished 10/15

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate–Jacqueline Kelly

evolution of calpurnia tate

I had just finished the biography of Darwin and opened the beautifully-covered young-adult novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, when I saw that the first chapter began with the Origin of Species.  In fact, every chapter began with a quote from Origin.  With evolution in the title, that should not have been so surprising, but I had chosen the intriguing cover for my next book for its whimsy, not evolution, so the focus on Darwin seemed serendipitous.

Isn’t it lovely when a beautiful cover, a truly beautiful cover, folds over an equally beautiful story?  When I read the back flap and saw that this was Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel, I could not believe it.  Calpurnia and her family are such rich characters in such a rich Texas setting that no debut novelist could have created them, but here they were.  Kelly sets the story in 1899 where Calpurnia’s part of Texas has more of a foot in the nineteenth century than it is looking forward to the twentieth.  Calpurnia is the only daughter in a prosperous farm family with six brothers. Her mother has headaches and drinks medicinal potions, which Calpurnia later discovers are twenty percent alcohol.  Her oldest brother is starting to court, but not always showing good taste in young women.  Her youngest brothers are raising kittens and being little boys, while the middle brothers begin to follow their older brother’s lead and show an interest in girls, particularly Calpurnia’s best friend, much to her dismay.

Calpurnia is not interested in knitting and needlework, or the cooking her mother tries to encourage.  She is far more interested in the world around her outdoors, particularly insects.  Her oldest brother gives her a notebook in which to record her observations and this attempt to keep a younger sister out of his hair leads Calpurnia to science and, as important, to her grandfather, who lives with the family, but is an obscure figure who retreats to his library and his laboratory in the old slave quarters out back.  He notices Calpurnia when he sees her recording in the notebook and, in light of her poor observations, takes her under his wing and opens the world of the Victorian naturalist to her.  When Calpurnia it spurned by the local librarian for seeking Origin of Species, Grandfather gives her his copy, demonstrating his trust in her care and her ability to understand serious science.

They spend long afternoons collecting specimens and recording their findings.  Calpurnia helps him track his experiments at turning pecans into a consumable liquor.  He refuses to give her answers to her questions, but gives her the tools with which to answer them herself.  When Calpurnia despairs at the impossibility of her becoming a scientist, he reminds her of the great women scientists of history.  Grandfather is a treasure.

Grandfather worries over the little time he has left and Calpurnia speaks so often of how he is her salvation on the farm that I began to fear the book would end with Grandfather’s passing, but Kelly saves us from that.  Like the caterpillar she captures and raises through its life cycle, Calpurnia consumes knowledge and grows, enters the cocoon of despair at her limited opportunities as a young girl in Texas in 1899, then emerges bright, shiny,and optimistic without our seeing her truly take flight.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is magical.  I am so glad I read it.  I am so glad I read it after Darwin’s biography. I cannot wait until my young naturalist is ready to read it, too.

Finished 3/30/15

Looking for Alaska–John Green

looking for alaska

I had watched John Green’s Crash Course History series for years before realizing that he was an author of young adult lit.  I realized this, probably along with many others, when I read The Fault in Our Stars.  I enjoyed that novel and the movie adaptation so, when I heard that his first book was celebrating its tenth anniversary, in my Amazon cart it went.

Like many young adult novels, Looking for Alaska is fairly short–221 pages.  A weekend read or a Saturday read if it’s a slow Saturday.  Miles Halter is an only child with no friends, an addiction to reading biographies, and a fetish for last words.  He wants something more, the Great Perhaps that perhaps was part of Rabelais’ last words,  and asks to attend his father’s alma mater, a boarding school in Alabama.  He meets, of course, quirky characters, including his very poor roommate, the Colonel; Tamuki, the rapping Asian-descent second-tier friend; Lara, the cute Romanian girl with a prerequisite accent; and Alaska, the smoking-hot super-smart bad girl who, with the Colonel, drags him out of his humdrum life.  There is tragedy.  I have only read two John Green books, but if this is a regular motif, he is the Nicholas Sparks of young adult lit.

As an adult, I could not help thinking how much young adult lit had changed.  Wifey was a scandal when I was a teenager.  Are You There God It’s Me Margaret was iffy because it talked about bodily functions.  Some of my girlfriends’ moms would not buy it for them and I had to loan them my copy.  In Looking for Alaska characters have sex, there is a description of a blow job and a blow job tutorial, there is smoking, drinking, induced vomiting, and it is all routine.  Perhaps because the people who are parents now grew up with parents who banned menstruation as a topic.

This was not a great, epic novel, but I appreciated the way Green talked about the struggle of what happens after someone you loves dies.  The focus on their being nothing, then the biological process of decomposition, disillusion with accepted answers, then the formulation of something you can live with.  Hopefully most young readers will not understand how on he was until long after they have read about Miles, the Colonel, and Alaska.   One of my favorite lines was after Miles relates Meriwether Lewis’ last words–“I am not a coward, but I am so strong.  So hard to die.”  Green writes, “I don’t doubt that it is, but it cannot be much harder than being left behind.”   One day, I suppose, we will all find out.

Finished 2/23/15

When You Reach Me–Rebecca Stead


I cannot remember why I ordered Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me this winter.  Some chain of events led me to own this slim young adult volume and the start of spring semester gave me time to finally read it. The mystery of chance and the connection between free will and fate as well as our ability to perceive reality provide the backdrop for Stead’s plot.

A cast of sixth-grade students inhabit the world of books and latch-key kids and frustrated adults that populate Stead’s novel.  Miranda, named after our Miranda rights by her law student cum paralegal mother, has read A Wrinkle In Time so many times that she considers it her book and is jealous to see it in others’ possession.  Despite having read it many times, she has not mastered all of its secrets, as she discovers when a classmate draws her into a discussion about mistakes and time travel.  Miranda’s interests in the book seem to have a different focus.  She muses on Meg’s search for her father, when she herself is ok without a father, she says, because she never knew what it was like to have one.  Despite this reflection, she does not consider that her mother’s long-term boyfriend, Richard, has become her father.  Miranda sees books more clearly than real life.  Parent issues are not the center of the story, however.  What is the center is unclear to the reader as it is to Miranda as she tries to figure out when things changed, when things started to unravel, and what she will do about a series of cryptic notes she has received.  Bullies, mean girls, racism, adolescent sexuality, chronic illness, class inequities, mental illness and homelessness all swirl around Miranda and her small group of classmates, but it’s the search for the meaning of the notes that occupies the center.    Why do things change?  How do our small actions end up with big consequences?  These are the big questions of Stead’s short novel and of young adult and older adult lives.  The mystery of the notes keeps us from looking too hard at them until she is ready to pull back the veil as well as pulls us eagerly from one page to the next. 

Finished 5/3/14


Finding Favor–Lana Long (e-book)


This is Lana Long’s first novel and is self-published.    Finding Favor is classified as young adult fiction and is another Jane Austen-inspired work, this time from Mansfield Park.

Favor is about to turn eighteen and pursue her love of horticulture.  She is living a life of material privilege, but emotional deprivation in the home of her guardians, the Browns, who took her in after the death of her father left her an orphan.  Favor knows little about her family, other than what is contained in a series of journals that contain family stories of her father and grandfather.  Favor’s mother is not a significant concern for her, which receives little explanation.  Mr. Brown, a cold corporate type, knew Favor’s father, but in what capacity, she is unsure as he refuses to discuss her past.  The Browns have three children:  Tom, the party-boy eldest; Ethan, the sensitive middle child; and Madison, the spoiled baby with daddy issues.  Actually, all three children have daddy issues as Mr. Brown is cold and distant to his biological children as well as Favor.  Madison has tortured Favor at school and at home, going out of her way to emphasize her role as outsider.  The reason for this cruelty, however, is later revealed to be her jealousy over the (negative) attention Favor receives from Mr. Brown.  Negative attention is better than being ignored.  

Favor is in love with Ethan, but the novel opens with Mr. Brown presenting her with a contract that requires her to stay out of Ethan’s life in exchange for the Browns funding Favor’s college years and using their contacts to secure an important internship.  Favor agonizes over the contract and finally signs it on her 18th birthday.  The split from Ethan is made easier when he falls for a neighbor’s granddaughter, newly returned from years in Paris (of course), Mary.  Mary is sophisticated and very into saving the world, as long as someone is watching and the saving helps her make connections that will allow her to advance her career.  

The plot outline is there from Austen, but Long’s characters remain one-dimensional.  Ethan is whiny; Favor is a martyr; Tom transforms from bad boy to caring brother who sacrifices his own happiness for Favor and Ethan; Madison’s cruelty is excused by her father’s inadequate parenting; Mrs. Brown’s years of neglect (and cruelty) to Favor are excused with three hugs and some tears.  Even Mr. Brown achieves character salvation by telling Favor the story of his connection to her family and promises to dole out more on a monthly basis.

It is also interesting to watch authors grow and see their writing mature.  I look forward to seeing this for Lana Long.

Finished 7/27/13


Starved-Mike Somers


I grew up with plenty of stories about teenage girls suffering with eating disorders.  In the eighties, if you read young adult fiction for girls, you might have thought every girl was struggling with anorexia or bulimia.  It was a girls’ disease, brought on by the pressures of the media for thin, ethereal girls.  This was a pre-Beyonce world.

The idea that boys might also suffer from these diseases never appeared in fiction or, to my memory, in the teen magazines of the day.  Starved gives the lie to that image.

Nathan’s father is a lawyer working to advance and maintain his reputation at his firm and in their small town.  His mother is a lawyer’s wife who attends yoga and participates in charitable activities while she obsesses about her image, including her body.  Her neuroses about food and fat and her husband’s about public image are transferred to their son and Nathan begins to crack when a new bike becomes fetishized by hours and hours of exercising.  This obsession takes a darker turn when a wrestler-classmate introduces Nathan to purging.

At first Nathan’s mother and friends praise his slimmer form, but, as he moves from slim to ghostly, few dare to ask what is going on.  It’s not until his mother finds him passed out on the living room floor near renal failure that concern moves to action.  Even when he is hospitalized, however, his father denies the problem and acts out in group therapy, blaming Nathan for causing the family problems rather than being a victim of them.

The most heart-wrenching scene is when the nurses ask Nathan and the girls on the floor with him to lie on butcher paper and trace their body outlines.  Nathan cries and sees for the first time what he truly looks like and so begins his way to health.

Starved is a beautifully written story that brought me into the heart of Nathan, his caregivers, and even his unsympathetic parents.  I can’t wait to read more from this debut author.

Finished 2/24/13