Books by Tom and Laura McNeal
Children's books are full of passageways. Armoires, rabbit holes, train stations. They lead to a world more wonderful in the literal sense--talking lions, talking rabbits, invisibility, dragons, time travel, and flight. In a certain kind of delectable fantasy, the only thing more wonderful than having magical powers and meeting friendly beasts is the discovery that the ordinary, unhappy, misfitting child is actually the savior of the world.
The other kind of children's book, the type where you can't fly or talk to animals, where you have to go to school and you hate the way you look (or are) and you can't fly and you can only talk to stuffed animals (and you'd better not do that in front of any of your friends), is full of passageways, too, but they're emotional. The child goes from innocence to experience. From ignorance (sometimes blissful, always dangerous) to knowing the score.
I used to be the world's most earnest missionary for the second kind of book. Realism was the cause I could take door to door. Epiphany and empathy, I believed, could save anyone. Get down on your knees with me and read.
You have to be a true believer to say that over and over again, and I still believe, but doubt has crept in. It's become clear to me, all of a sudden, in the most painful way, why reluctant readers are reluctant; more specifically, why a person in my house, born to me and deeply beloved, does not want to be saved by literature. He doesn't want to go through that passageway. Why would he voluntarily make that journey from innocence to experience? Why would he want to give up hours or even minutes of his day to suffer someone else's mistakes, inflict harm, acknowledge that harm, and try to atone for it? Where's the joy in that? I'll stay right here, he's basically saying, planting his feet at the entrance to that passageway. I don't want to go through it.
There's a certain kind of reader who doesn't care when you say, "But it's so beautifully written. It's so cathartic. It's so true." And that kind of reader, my live-in non-reader, is the living incarnation of the report-card phrase a brilliant, sardonic teacher I used to know always pretended he was going to write in his progress reports to parents: "Nature or nurture, it's your fault." Believe me when I say that I used to think it was a matter of the right books and persistence. It's like teaching kids to eat well! They'll develop a taste for true goodness if you keep offering it! Did we read aloud to him as often as we read to his older brother, who does, in fact, like to read? On our laps? Every day and every night? Did made-up stories unspool from our mouths on command for years and years? Did we listen to audiobooks on road trips? Have thousands of books in the house? Read our own books in front of him? Yes, yes, yes, yes. I swear to you that if I had one wish--I don't need three--I would go back in time and hold both boys on my lap again and read one picture book after another the way we used to do, forever and ever.
Here's the problem, and I don't see how it can be fixed, really. The first books we offer to children are full of joy. Fun. Delight. Wonder. You go to a picture book or a children's story to feel good and powerful and safe. But that is not why you go to literature, if you go to literature, when you grow up. Literature (as distinct from genre fiction) is about making mistakes, inflicting harm, acknowledging that harm, and atoning for it, sometimes only by telling the story, not by actually being able to fix anything. It's about not finding all the answers, not getting what we want, and articulating all the inchoate longing we feel. There's always joy and wonder and grace in a great book, but it's mixed with sadness and limitation. There's a certain kind of reader who says no to that, and he used to sit on my lap. I understand his reluctance, finally. I see his point.
And yet I'm standing on this street corner beside the Salvation Army man, and I'm handing you seven books for young people that were published this year. Individually and collectively, they offer wisdom, surprise, and exaltation, but they also ask the reader to suffer varying degrees of vicarious pain. One (and only one) of the following books was read in its entirety by the Boy Who Wants Never to Grow Up, so I will put that one first in case you know and love someone who sees with unusual clarity what we all know to be true: childhood is another country, and once we leave it, the tunnel vanishes, the door closes, the back of the armoire becomes solid wood. The only way back is for another child, your own or someone else's, to take you by the hand and lead you there temporarily, or for an author to do the same thing. May at least one of these titles bring you that joy.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas
Age category: written for children but has an Alice in Wonderland-Little Prince appeal for adults
Source of pain: discovering you are imaginary
Source of joy: being imaginary
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Age category: written for children but has an ageless quality, like really good pudding or layer cake on a rainy afternoon
Source of pain: Abusive mother, birth defect
Source of joy: a very satisfying pony and a bunch of believable, smart, not-abusive adults and kids
The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Age category: written for children but I dare you to read it aloud and not be impressed and moved
Source of pain: death of a sibling
Source of joy: getting to know a previously severe and unknowable parent; helping someone you love to recover from grief
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Age category: younger side of adolescence
Source of pain: being an adolescent; interacting with friends and family
Source of joy: realistic, rewarding connections with friends and family
Whippoorwill by Joseph Monninger
Age category: adolescence
Source of pain: an abusive parent once removed (this one lives next door, not in the narrator's house)
Source of joy: saving a dog and being saved by friendship, a loving parent, and a dog
A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
Age category: adolescence
Source of pain: assault of a developmentally disabled high school girl named Belinda
Source of joy: being Belinda (trust me on this) as she recovers from this with the help of a loving family and her own moxie
Calvin by Martine Leavitt
Age category: adolescence and beyond, especially if you loved Calvin and Hobbes
Source of pain: diagnosis of schizophrenia
Source of joy: surreal journey across a metaphysical and literal Lake Erie in hopes of recovering a childhood state of bliss
Extra note: This is a great love story that is also an existentialist play that is also a deeply moving homage to a comic strip hero. And it's very short.