September: Back To School Book Reviews

It’s the end of September and our Back to School blues have abated. The HYR writers have spent the last month re-reading our old favorites from grade school, revisiting the old friends, plots and landscapes that shaped who we would grow to be. 

Important books have a prophetic way of finding us when we need them the most. 

And boy do we need them the most during the most awkward, painful, and daunting phases of our youth. I’ll make an obnoxiously broad claim and say that you would be hard pressed to find an adult who hasn’t been strongly effected by a book at some point in their youth. Even if you hated reading growing up, even if books gave you headaches and you just rented the movie version at Blockbuster instead (here’s looking at you, Nathaniel Hawthorne)—there is some story, some written words, some special lyrics, that aided in developing you. 

Here are some of the books that helped shape us. 

What I remember most about my childhood was loving Fridays.

My dream night, to this day, is a hectically stormy Friday night watching Ghost Adventures and reading a scary book. My mother always knew this about me and many Fridays she would watch for the storms to roll in and plan my favorite meal or take me to my favorite fast food restaurant and plop me down on the floor with my food, my stuffed animals, and Ghost Adventures.

I’ve always loved things that were way too scary for my own good. I blame Goosebumps and Courage the Cowardly Dog. I also, lovingly, blame my mother. She was always right there next to me watching My Ghost Story or A Haunting whether she had more important things to do or not. Those shows were our jam during the summer months. We would plan our whole days around them so that we could be ready to sit down and doze off to the soulful narrations around 3:00 pm every day.

Additionally, another favorite from my childhood was the books I read; over and over, endlessly. When I was in grade school it was Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe. In high school it was The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan or And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Recently, Miss Hello Yellow and I were talking and she came up with the genius idea to revisit our childhoods, despite how traumatic it may be.

I agreed to reread my favorite childhood books and here we are, reminiscing over harsh lightning and crashing thunder, wishing Taco Bell was easier on older bodies.

I reread Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe, illustrated by Alan Daniel and was instantly transported back to those same dark nights. When I first picked this book up from my local library I was stunned at how orange the pages were. Not yellowed but straight orange! This poor little book and its 100 pages have been through the ringer. I checked the copyright date and was stunned to see that this book is 40 years old! I never knew it was published in 1979.

Despite it’s sad appearance and desire to be retired, the feel of the pages was unmistakable.

It was like being back on the bus, my knees pulled up to the seat in front of me, rain hitting the window, and a book wide open in my lap; held like a treasure. There are seven books in this series about a vampire bunny and the lengths that a dog and cat will go to in order to protect their family. It’s even been turned into audio books, picture books, and a short lived TV show on Cartoon Network.

As somewhat of a cult classic, this book will forever hold a special place in my heart.

I hope I’ll read it to my children some day and tell them how old it is and that I read it when I was their age. It helped spark my love of reading. To this day, I’m grateful for those creepy nights and the need to stay up reading. We should all be so lucky to have children who feel this way in the future.

Searching for myself, or a love letter to The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

When Sam told me about the Back to School series, I knew I was going to choose one of two books: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin or From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. These were my two favorite books growing up, and interestingly,both are mysteries, a genre that I do not gravitate towards as an adult. However, both titles feature female protagonists who are flawed, complex characters, which I do seek out in my reading as an adult. I ultimately decided on The Westing Game because I had not read it since middle school or high school. I went into this reread with some trepidation. This book meant so much to me as a kid- would it hold up? Was there problematic writing that my younger self glossed over? Did a book published in 1978 have anything relevant to say forty years later? 

 I’m happy to report that I loved The Westing Game as much as I did as a child, and gained a new found appreciation for it as an adult. 

The Westing Game starts with a death. Sam Westing, paper products mogul, has died. He gathers a random (or so it seems) collection of people who live in the Sunset Towers apartment complex, and in his will, pairs them together for a chance to win $200 million dollars and the control of his company if they can solve the mystery of his death. Each pair is given $10,000 which they can spend as they see fit (on the condition that both players agree and endorse the check). These pairings seem to designed at random; instead of pairing family members together, Sam Westing has paired total strangers who at first glance seem to have no connection to each other. Why pair Turtle Wexler, the semi-protagonist of this book with Flora Baumbach, the seamstress? But these pairings are at the heart of what makes The Westing Game a wonderful book.

Sam Westing was not concerned with auctioning off his fortune or even his players being able to solve the mystery. He wanted to build connections and community, and that’s exactly what the game achieves. Doug Shin Hoo and Grace Wexler, two characters who have nothing in common, become business partners and develop a series of successful restaurants by the book’s end. Medical intern Denton Deere is able to find medicine to give his partner Chris a much better quality of life.

These true moments of human connection are what I look for not only in novels, but in real life.

Sam Westing recognized something in all of the people tangentially connected to him, and through this “game” was able to teach them that they were more alike than they ever could have guessed from first appearances. This is a powerful message for kids, and it remains even more powerful as an adult.

I don’t remember exactly when I read The Westing Game, probably fourth or fifth grade, or what my initial reaction to it was. I know I liked the puzzle aspect, which I still enjoyed as an adult, and I remember liking the character of Turtle. Turtle is incredibly smart (she’s the only one who truly figures out the Westing game), and while she puts up a tough exterior, being known for kicking people in the shins, she is incredibly compassionate. Her bond with Flora Baumbach, or Baba as Turtle calls her, is such a sweet relationship full of mutual concern and caring. Despite her mom’s best efforts, Turtle and Angela develop a close friendship, especially when Turtle proves herself to be trustworthy with Angela’s secret.

I think what made me relate to Turtle the most as a kid is that she’s a keen observer. Turtle might not quite be an introvert, but she is constantly watching the other characters and discovering truths about them. Growing up especially, I prefered to stay on the sidelines of conversations, listening instead of talking. I’m not that same painfully shy child, but I like to observe, gaining insights about others and really listening.

I think what I learned from Turtle, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, was it’s okay to be complicated. You can kick shins and be a compassionate friend. I’m so glad to have rediscovered this lesson and the magnificent story that surrounds it.

I can remember what it feels like to really believe in magic.

In junior high, I specialized in reading fantasy books. I would only start a book if it 1. Involved magic, 2. Involved a female protagonist who may or may not be an anti-hero, and 3. Came in a series I could consume for an extended period of time. I read too frequently for one-offs; I was at the stage of my adolescence where I would get emotional about things really quickly, so the end of a series would leave me in heaving sobs nearly every time.

I harbored a desperate desire for magic. It was a brooding wish lodged deep in my solar plexus, this feeling of knowing for certain that I had some kind of special destiny. The longer I stood at the end of the pier the easier it would be for the mermaids to find me. The tighter I held onto an amethyst, the easier it would be to channel my innate witch abilities and levitate. I would go to the park and sit in trees to read, certain from that vantage it would be easier for my true love (who was probably an immortal being) to recognize me as the long lost faerie queen of some alternate plane.

I wanted to be special and magic was the only thing that would separate me from the millions of others girls my age, living lives similar to mine, made unremarkable by our quantity. The value of rarity was not lost on me, even at an age in which most every kid strives to fit in.

At the height of my obsession with magic came the Sweep Series by Cate Tiernan.

The first book was released in 2001, with 15 total to follow. That sounds like a ton of reading, but the books are relatively narrow. Young me had all fifteen in paperback, sitting on my shelf in a long row of spines with witchy fonts. Modern me has all 15 in a new compilation broken down into five sizable novels–not as easy to transport, but way more convenient for shelf life.The series follows Morgan Rowlands, a fairly ordinary girl who discovers she’s the descendant of an extremely powerful line of witches. She comes to Wicca hoping to channel her gifts and forms a coven with her high school friends. It’s The Craft, but without all the darkness and plaid skirts.

Re-reading this series transported me back to long afternoons spent sitting in my favorite trees, legs dangling, hopes high

I snagged the first compilation and read it in a single feverish night. Bit by bit I started to remember what was coming next in each book, but it only made me more eager to get to my favorite parts.  

The books themselves are relatively informative about Wiccan practices, in spite of the fantasy elements. During my re-read, I felt like Tiernan was crafting textbooks of Wiccan culture, almost grueling in their reciting of folklore, credo, and routine. The coven is drawing up the circle again, they’re calling on the elements again, they’re discussing the best uses of power again, and so on until I was flipping through whole scenes of painstaking ritual details without shame.

I remember why I loved Morgan so much. I recognized her insecurity, but admired how bold she could be in spite of her self-consciousness. Morgan gets shit done. When she’s tempted by darkness and makes mistakes, she admits her faults. When bad things happen to the people she loves, she allows herself space to grieve. When she accomplishes something amazing, she gives herself accolades. Being in her head as she narrates her journey feels natural and comforting.

Also (spoilers) Hunter, Morgan’s true love,still gives me soul shivers. He’s definitely the character that every man in my life is being measured up to, without my having realized it these past fifteen years. Here’s to all the girls and boys whose first crushes were book characters, you’re my people.

I’m so glad these books were around during my most formative years. My belief in magic gave me an imagination that lets me travel far from the mundane. I still believe in magical alternate realities—they’re safely inside the books I shelve everyday at the library.

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