Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Two very beautiful MG novels

A double post today! Both of these came from my library, when I was browsing the younger section for something pleasant.

Dancing Through the Snow, by Jean Little

This is the story of Min: early memories of a callous, abusive pair who weren't her parents, abandoned in a public place, in and out of foster homes for years. Now, a little while before Christmas, she's been returned to the social services office again after another placement that didn't work out. But a new chance comes, in the form of Jess Hart, a doctor who helped her when she was younger. Jess, with a characteristic disregard of red tape, sweeps Min away to her own home. And this begins a new life for Min - full of unexpected complications, like an abandoned dog, a puppy-mill investigation, and an irritating boy named Toby, as well as with surprising joys.

At its heart this is a simple, gentle book about a girl finding her place in the world. Each of the characters is lifelike, from caring Jess Hart to even the difficult Toby. There's no earth-shaking conflict or excitement in this book, but there's all sorts of beauty, and the small decisions of right and wrong, good and bad. I felt that this book could really have happened - and stories like it probably have, before.

Age rec: anyone. The more unpleasant aspects - Min's difficult early life, the puppy mill - are, if not ignored, "lightened" for younger readers. And I myself was moved almost to tears at several points, including the ending.

Weasel, by Cynthia Defelice

A continent and many years away from the Jean Little book, 180 degrees different in every way almost, Weasel is about a boy named Nathan and the hard history he comes up against. Set in the American woods soon after Daniel Boone's time, this story tells about Nathan's meeting with Ezra, a man who's lost everything, and Weasel, the man who has taken it from him for no reason but cruelty. Nathan encounters Weasel himself and is forced to examine his own notions of justice....

... And so is the reader.
There were several times in this book where I myself was wondering, what would I do if I were in Nathan's place? It's hard to say, and I'm still not sure. This book isn't stopping short of putting the difficult questions - and the difficult truths - out there.
A key question seems to be: what makes a man good, what makes a man bad? Nathan recognizes that the settlers vilify the Indians. He himself hates Weasel. Weasel, granted, has done terrible things. What does this make Nathan in regards to how he acts towards Weasel?
I'm still thinking... I feel I could write an essay about it someday.
A keenly-written, sometimes heart-wrenching book about one boy's meeting with cruelty - and his ultimately love-affirming response.

Age rec: A man's tongue is cut out and his pregnant wife killed. This isn't shown, and described in little more detail than I've just used, but on Amazon there were some people who disliked the book for that reason. There is, of course, no question about the immorality of such killings and cruelty. The whole book, though, is a pretty in-depth discussion about morality and choices. I would love to use it to teach a class sometime. I personally would say ages 9 or 10 and up, simply because the main point of the story is ethics and a younger child might not understand most of it.

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