A Very Odd Reading Weekend

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 28th, 2013

Each year, as many of you know, the Flying Pig publishes a 16-page full-color catalog (which we inaccurately refer to as “the newsletter,” even though it’s rare we disseminate actual store news in its pages). We feature around 125 books, which strive to comprise a mix of the best of the best books published this year, staff favorites to recommend to children and adults. As I get closer and closer to the newsletter deadline and try to cram more and more books in so I don’t miss something spectacular, my reading mix becomes increasingly strange. More on that in a bit.

In addition to choosing only the best of what we’ve read this year, we also want a range of genres and styles. It would be easy for the middle grade picks to be overrun by fantasy and high-concept wackitude, the kinds of books that grab attention away from quieter solid titles about everyday adventures, friendship, animals, etc., books that are less flashy but might have an equal or greater lasting impact on young readers’ minds and hearts. (I myself am a big fan of fantasy and wackitude, so I have to beware of not overloading my selections in those areas. Also, I do know that fantasy and wackitude can also be powerful and meaningful. But you know what I’m getting at.)

We also want to include small press titles, quirky finds, and books that lie outside my own personal interests but are treasures for other kinds of readers. I want to make sure there’s a healthy balance between fiction and nonfiction, since some customers read almost solely one or the other. Happily, having a staff of booksellers also reading and recommending books for the newsletter makes for a lot of diversity. We range from 17 to 70, both male and female. Not too shabby. We could be more diverse (this is Vermont, after all), but we try to cover our bases thoughtfully.

All of which brings me to today. While this morning and afternoon’s reading hasn’t included any nonfiction or quirky small press offerings, it has been decidedly … unusual. So far, I have read the following: Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman, and Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. I think it’s safe to say that never have I had a stranger muddle of emotions after a day’s reading.

Prisoner B-3087 is really powerful stuff, the somewhat fictionalized true story of Yanek Gruener, a Jewish boy in Poland who spends years under the worst of the Nazi regime, first in the Warsaw Ghetto and then in multiple successive work and death camps. He loses nearly all of his family, and all of his friends. He survives because, as his Uncle Moshe urges him, “We cannot let these monsters tear us from the pages of the world.” The book does an admirable job of holding up the horrors of the Holocaust to a clear, un-sugarcoated light without tipping into the kind of gruesome detail that tends to flip such unimaginable terror almost into unbelievability, the kind of experience we, as 21st-century privileged and relatively safe Americans, just cannot absorb as having been possible. Does that make sense? It is a feat to describe something so utterly alien and horrible, tragic and enraging, into a picture that we can even take in. It is unbearable to live in Yanek’s skin, and yet Alan Gratz makes it possible, allowing us to glimpse what made this boy a survivor, a combination of pure luck—there were so many close brushes with death—intelligence, resourcefulness, character, and sheer determination. For the real-life Yanek Gruener (who goes by “Jack” in America) to have survived, fallen in love with his wife, Ruth, also a survivor, have come to the U.S. and raised a family, to spend their lives working and traveling to speak of these experiences is a testament to courage and generosity of spirit. There are so many powerful books about this time in history, and Prisoner B-3087 is another fine addition.

I will say that, while intended for readers ages 10-14, I can’t think of too many 10- and 11-year-olds I’d unhesitatingly hand this book to, as good as it is. There are other introductions to the horrors of the Holocaust that provide a less steep ramp into the everyday unimaginable nightmares and terrors people endured. And yet, at some point, we all must face this past and its many lessons and questions. For those ready to handle it, Prisoner B-3087 is an unforgettable book.

It was hard to shift gears to another book after that. It felt disrespectful to leave Yanek’s world so quickly, without the proper time for the grief and reflection such a story deserves. But the newsletter deadline calls, and great stacks of books await, and so next I found myself with The Screaming Staircase in hand. I could not have read something realistic and wrenching after Prisoner B-3087, so a middle-grade novel about ghostbusters in old-fashionedy London seemed perfect. There’s a lot of death in this one, as well, though, which made me ponder once again how casual and normalized death has become in children’s books, especially adventure and fantasy. Not just off-screen references to death, but live-action descriptions of violent ends and decaying corpses and other things that would have given me nightmares as a kid, but which today’s youth (with sensitive exceptions, of course) seem largely inured to.

But that’s just a teeny part of the delightful, suspenseful world of The Screaming Staircase. Why is old-time London so eternally cozy to American readers? Stroud, who showed his irresistible character-creating chops in the Bartimaeus books, has done it again with Lucy and Lockwood and George, three young ghost-fighting agents who each bring their special psychic or other gifts to the practice (Lucy can Hear, Lockwood can See, and George, well, George researches and prepares and does most of the worrying). Stroud also excels at crackling dialogue and wry humor. And pacing! He knows how to fling a good cliffhanger our way, and moves back and forth in time, keeping the story propelled briskly forward while also deftly painting in the background details of plot and character backstory. Fans of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart mysteries are likely to enjoy The Screaming Staircase, which skews just a tad younger (um, and has ghosts). The story is pure protoplasmic adventurous fun, a mix of spectral spookiness and dashing recklessness, high stakes building to a truly creepy climax.

I must say it was a strange experience to leave the very real kind of dark evil in Prisoner B-3087 only to encounter supernatural evils (brought on by old murders and other dark deeds) in my next read. And then it was on to a much sillier realm created by Neil Gaiman.

Fortunately, the Milk (see book cover at top of post) is an example of perfectly executed, exalted wackitude. Basically, a British dad goes out for milk for his tea and his children’s breakfast while Mum is out of town. The kids wait a looong time for his return, and when he gets back, he has a wild tale to explain his delay, one involving time travel and pirates and space aliens and “wumpires” and exploding volcanos and a volcano god and piranhas and a hot-air-balloon-flying professorial stegosaurus and galactic police officer T. Rexes and gems and all manner of appealing staples out of children’s adventure stories, all turned on their heads in one way or another with a wink and a nod to readers. Oh, that Neil Gaiman! He made me smile all the way through with this book’s antics and wordplay and the fact that the entire crazy adventure is resolved by spoofing its own genre. Brilliant!

I shudder to think how these stories will intertwine in my dreams tonight, but I don’t regret a single word.

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