by Steven Engelfried
I like a good story, and appreciate eloquent writing, but the element that I seem to respond to most strongly in books is characterizations. And I think many kids respond that way too. In a year’s worth of children’s books, we get to meet so many very interesting people (and animals). My favorite 2007 characters include a girl who chases chickens (The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice Harrington) (I like Miss Hen a lot too), two boat-loving twins with a language of their own (Mokie and Bik by Wendy Orr), a girl who masters a Neil Diamond song on an organ (A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban), and a dog who serves in the Vietnam War (Cracker by Cynthia Kadohata).
My favorite character of the year is nine year old Lenny, from Kate Banks’ Lenny’s Space. On the outside, Lenny’s a disturbance in class, a minor trial to his mother, either made fun of or ignored by his classmates, and a challenge to his therapist. But readers, and to some degree all of the others, get to know him better. Banks does a marvelous job of getting us into Lenny’s head so we understand the thought process behind his behaviors, and it really rings true. He gets in trouble for yelling at a library book when he’s supposed to know better. But he yells because he’s angry at the red blood cells he’s reading about…the same kind of cells that are threatening the life of his best friend. This is a marvelous book, and I think Lenny is a character they’ll find interesting and memorable, as I did.
The only thing is, it’s a lot easier to describe plots than characters to kids who are looking for reading recommendations. Lenny’s Space is about a misfit boy and the sad thing that happens to his friend, but there’s really so much more to it. In some other books, the plot summary alone can capture most of the essence of the story in just a few words. Phyllis Naylor’s “Boys vs. Girls” series is a breeze: “A family of boys and a family of girls play practical jokes on each other” pretty much sells it. On the other hand, I’ve had hardly any success in convincing kids to read Hilary McKay’s “Exiles” books. I clearly remember trying to describe the scene in which Phoebe pretends to fish from a bucket, and why it’s so funny, and noting a polite, but increasingly baffled expression on the face of the eleven year old girl, who really just wanted a good story. It just didn’t work; you needed to get to know Phoebe and her sisters for that scene to even make sense, let alone make you laugh. I haven’t figured out yet how I might present Lenny’s Space to a potential reader, but it will be challenging.
That’s okay, though. Lenny will find readers. After all, Hilary McKay’s readership has grown quite a bit in this country since The Exiles came out in the early 90’s. Some of her books have shown up as state children’s choice award nominees. Word of mouth among kids and adults must have helped. And I also believe that youth librarians each play a small part in bringing excellent characters and worthy authors, every time we make that sometimes difficult attempt to introduce kids to unique characters, whether or not their story is instantly appealing.