Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.
Who: Matthew J. Kirby, MG and YA writer with a SciFi/Fantasy bend, author of The Clockwork Three and Icefall.
Please give it up for Matthew, everybody!
This past year has been one of the busiest I can remember having, except perhaps the two years I was in graduate school (but I’ve kind of blocked those years from my memory, so it’s hard to say for sure). In addition to writing books for young readers, I still work full-time as a school psychologist, which I means I have far less time than I would like to read the books I want to read. Most of the reading time I was able to scrounge in 2011 was taken up by research for the books I’m currently writing. But I don’t know that it would be particularly interesting to hear my thoughts on John C. Greene’s American Science in the Age of Jefferson or Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, fascinating as they are to me. But I did get to a few books for my own enjoyment, and here are some of my favorites.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
When I try to describe a Sara Zarr book to someone who hasn’t read her before, I usually end up talking about her characters, how real they are. And I find myself wanting to say things like, “they leap off the page.” But that tired expression doesn’t really work, for it implies that the page comes first, that the characters wouldn’t exist without the author. With Sara’s nuanced and authentic writing, the characters are real enough to exist without the book that contains them. They have full lives both before and after the slice you happen to be reading and experiencing with them. I’ve loved all of Sara’s work, but I think this one is my favorite.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I could talk about Ness’ writing here, his prose without a word out of place. I could talk about the emotional power of the story. But instead I’m going to talk about the monster. We all bring something of ourselves to the stories we read, and to A Monster Calls I brought a trip I took to Ireland a few years ago. My wife and I were visiting Killarney National Park, near Ross Castle, and went to see the ruins of Muckross Abbey. The day was a bit rainy and misty, and we were the only ones there, lending a rather lonely and haunted feeling to the place. And then we entered the cloister and saw a great yew tree at its center, a twisting, massive, mossy column.
Its Ent-like presence there stuck me into silence. It was obvious by its size that it had been growing there for centuries, and I’ve never forgotten the feeling of standing next to it, my relative smallness and insignificance. So when I read about Ness’ monster, the creaking, lumbering yew tree come to life, I recalled the tree growing in the middle of those ruins, and the monster in the book became so much more to me because I had seen it for myself.
YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND! by Peter Brown
This one appealed to me for professional reasons in addition to personal ones. Not only is it adorable, and entertaining, but it captures something that is universal to childhood experience: making friends. How do we learn to do that, exactly? This book made me think of second grade, an especially difficult year for me. I had just moved to a new school, and had no friends. Recess was pretty brutal, so I tried sneaking into the library, but I always got caught and was told to go outside and play with my friends. “But I don’t have any friends,” I’d say. “Then go outside and make some,” they’d say. Like it was just that easy. Only it wasn’t, and I wish I’d had a book like this to show me that what I was going through was normal. I use this book with students at the schools where I work, especially those on the Autism spectrum who struggle with social interactions.
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon is one of those writers who, whenever they have a new book come out, I will always go and buy, and I loved this collection of personal essays. One in particular (“The Wilderness of Childhood”) resonated with me, especially its description of a forest near Chabon’s childhood home. I spent some of my own childhood in Maryland, where we also had a small forest in which I ran and explored. During the years I lived there, my best friend and I mapped those woods. We ran with mason jars after fireflies in the twilight, and caught salamanders in the humid heat of the day. We spent hours exploring, and gave our own names to certain places, the clearings, streams, and even some of the recognizable trees. In doing so, we engaged in an act of fundamental discovery. The woods were small, and many of our neighbors passed through them. But no one walked through the same woods I did. Now that I work with students on a daily basis, I wonder how many of them have that kind of opportunity anymore for exploration and ownership. Not many, I’m afraid.