Having the flu has few advantages other than being able to nothing else but escape feeling awful with great books. This is how I finally got around to reading Kenneth Oppel’s much acclaimed book, The Nest, twice – once for just the experience of it, and once to try to figure out what my sixth graders would make of this mysterious, disturbing, and haunting book.
Here’s the publisher’s synopsis:
Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? Kenneth Oppel’s (Silverwing, The Boundless) haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, is one of the most acclaimed books of the year, receiving six starred reviews. Illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.
For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.
All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?
Since the story is told from Steven’s point of view, the reader enters his imagination and experiences completely; and Steven is no ordinary kid – he is anxious, deeply sensitive, and acutely attuned to all the unspoken fears and tensions in his home. Will the baby live? naturally becomes the issue at the center of Steven’s family life, and the focus of his parents’ attention. Dreams become Steven’s escape and solace, especially with the entrance of an angel-like queen wasp, who soothes him with the assurance that just outside the baby’s window, in a very special nest, a baby is being grown just for Steven’s family: a perfect Theo. That is what Steven really wants, doesn’t he?
But what one really wants and wishes most deeply for, comes at a price – it does for Steven. And this is where the story shifts into terrifying gear. As Steven becomes more conscious of the terrible price he is going to have to pay in order to secure the perfect Theo for his family, he must wrestle out of dreams and into conscious action. The last chapters of The Nest were gripping, and frightening; each reading experience left me with new insights and questions, as well as admiration for the skill and imaginative reach of the author.
The Nest reminded me of The Giver thematically and artistically. Both books should be shared with students with the understanding that there will be lots of conversation as the book is read, many opportunities to talk through some of the disturbing issues it raises.
Zetta Elliott’s lovely picture book is about young Mehkai, a gifted artist who uses his drawings to figure out the beauty and sorrow around him. So, he can capture the birds, buildings, people and life of his neighborhood; and his drawings make his family and friends smile even in sad times.
But, it will take more than Bird’s drawings to inspire his older brother Marcus to change the self destructive path he has chosen. And Bird must learn that what is true in art:
…you can fix stuff that’s messed up just by using your imagination or rubbing your eraser over the page…
is not necessarily true in life. Shadra Strickland’s beautiful illustrations add so much to this story:
Jane Yolen’s Stone Angel is moving story of a Jewish family forced to flee Nazi occupied Paris, and make their way to England. Their journey is fraught with terror and danger, but always they find hope in the kindness of strangers and hope in their own unshakable love for each other. As always, Yolen writes with poetry and wisdom. Katie May Green’s illustrations are brilliant, and would add so much to a class read aloud experience.
Here is an interview from NPR in which Jane Yolen describes the inspiration for Stone Angel, one in which she also offers thoughtful advice about when kids are receptive to the content of serious books: