We middle grade teachers are a lucky lot, we get to read the works of so many gifted authors in order to stock our classroom libraries with books our kids will dive into and love. I was reminded of this good fortune last week, as I read two memorable books, back to back.
Dan Gemeinhart’s first book, The Honest Truth, was gifted to our classroom by a student who had loved it so much that she wanted to share the love. It was in circulation all year, and so I never had the chance to read it myself, and when the year ended the student (naturally!) really wanted it back. I put through a summer book order for it, but may just have to run out and buy a copy right away, because I’ve just finished reading Some Kind of Courage, and I know firsthand the magic this author is able to weave with his stories.
Here’s the jacket copy:
Joseph Johnson has lost just about everyone he’s ever loved. He lost his pa in an accident. He lost his ma and his little sister to sickness. And now, he’s lost his pony-fast, fierce, beautiful Sarah, taken away by a man who had no right to take her.
Joseph can sure enough get her back, though. The odds are stacked against him, but he isn’t about to give up. He will face down deadly animals, dangerous men, and the fury of nature itself on his quest to be reunited with the only family he has left.
Because Joseph Johnson may have lost just about everything. But he hasn’t lost hope. And he hasn’t lost the fire in his belly that says he’s getting his Sarah back-no matter what.
Joseph is a wise old soul, and yet he is like every twelve year old: he longs for adventure just as much as he longs for the safety of family and home, he is braver than he imagines himself to be, and he is uncertain about how to hold onto values he knows to be right in the face of difficult circumstances.
Gemeinhart does a wonderful job of capturing Joseph’s fierce and abiding love for the family he has lost and his single minded determination to be reunited with Sarah, his beloved horse. But the friend Joseph acquires as his solitary quest begins, Ah-Kee – an orphan just like him, and the bod of loyalty and affection these two boys are able to forge inspite of the fact that Joseph cannot speak Chinese, and Ah-Kee cannot speak English – adds another deeper layer to this story. Early in the story, Joseph comes to realize that, for all his own (very considerable) problems, this was also true:
And life was going on, all around me. With or without me, it was going on. It weren’t a matter of the whole thing stopping or the whole thing going on. The whole thing was going on.
It was only a matter of me standing up and deciding what part I had to play in it all.
As Joseph and Ah-Kee discover, playing your part involves making difficult choices, and holding on to hope when that seems pointless. Joseph is more than aware of the anti-Chinese sentiment of the times, and that his loyalty to Ah-Kee is also a matter of facing up to discrimination and standing with his friend. And, he has much to learn from the quiet strength of his mostly-silent friend, who shares so many common values and sentiments that show themselves through courageous action rather than empty talk. The boys share many a edge-of-your-seat adventures, but the true heart of this story lies in this message, which Joseph remembers and carries in his heart:
Mama said that is someone’s putting ugliness into the world, you can’t be ugly back; you gotta put a little bit of sunshine into the world to even things out.
And, isn’t that a message for today? It’s certainly a message I want to share with my students at the very beginning of the school year, which is why I will be reading this wise and beautiful book again this week, and figuring out how to best launch it as our first read aloud of the year.
Maybe A Fox , co authored by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee is a magical and mysterious book.
Jules and Sylvie are sisters united by their love for each other and their Vermont village by the woods and mountains, and also by their sorrow over losing their mother. Jules collects rocks, each representing a mood, a memory, a hope. Sylvie runs, the faster she runs the more she pushes herself to run even faster. Jules is puzzled and then heartbroken by her beloved sister’s drive for speed, for one morning Sylvie runs so fast that she runs right into the Slip – the dangerous river which appears and then disappears in their woods.
At the same time, a young fox makes its appearance and seems drawn to Jules. Senna, this fox, is Kennen – part of the spirit world, and part of the animal world:
…the Kennen? They are linked to the spirits. No one is sure why. Some believe that the Kennen are meant to finish something that isn’t finished, to settle something that needs to be settled. Others say that a Kennen’s true purpose is to help in some way, big or small…What is known is that the Kennen come to this world for reasons beyond our knowing, and once their missions are done, they return to the haven of their ancestors.
Senna shadows Jules as she tries to come to terms with Sylvie’s death, and to understand why her sister needed to run ever faster. When Jules puts herself in grave danger on this quest, only Senna knows…and only Senna can act.
Maybe A Fox is one of those books which transports you to a reading realm where disbelief can be suspended and you come to believe in the world the authors have created. It is a powerful story about so much more than the love in a family and how it copes with loss, or the often mystical way in which people and animals connect and come to know each other. I loved every bit of this story, and can’t wait to share it with my sixth graders in September – it is a book they will absolutely love.
Here’s an interview with the authors: