Monday, January 8, 2018

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

I'm trying to read more middle grade and children's fiction this year! I've been working as a children's librarian, which is amazing, but I've realized that I'm really not "with it" anymore. Kids come in asking for suggestions and it takes me a good twenty minutes to pinpoint a book in their reading level that fits their description. I know it's partly because kids can be picky and weirdly specific, and because programs like Accelerated Reader are slowly prying all the magic and discovery out of reading by pigeonholing kids into a very narrow "reading level" range from which they can pick from and earn points on books they're not really into in exchange for paltry rewards like a holographic bookmark or the prestige of being the principal, who instituted the heinous Accelerated Reader program in the first place, for a day. Has any child used their chance at being principal for the day to abolish the Accelerated Reader system? Anyway, I've realized I need to be better informed so that when a kid tells me they can't read a book that really looks amazing because it's .01 points below their assigned reading level, I can tell them exactly what they're missing, thereby sowing the seeds of discontent in a new generation.

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is a book I'll proudly dangle in front of the reading level-bound masses. It took me a few chapters to get into it - our main character, Stella, is sarcastic and the whole book is just a tad tongue-in-cheek, which was jarring as I had already wrongly typecast this as being a sad book only (Stella is dealing with the loss of her dad); it takes place in the 1970s and I realized that way too late and after too many Carl Sagan references; and everyone has weird space names (Cosmo, Tony Luna, Stella, etc). 

But, once I got in the groove, I grew to love this book. It features a funny, sarcastic girl who loves science and dreams of working at NASA someday. She's strong and brave and isn't embarrassed to love her stinky, weird brother. Her father recently passed away and she's struggling with her emotions, but that's okay! It doesn't make her weak or girly - it makes her human. 

What I loved most about this book was the way Stella dealt with her sadness (believe it or not, the pet black hole who follows her home is actually a big gaping symbol for the black hole inside of Stella). She cares for it, she gives it what it needs, because it's a part of her, and she cares about herself. One of my favorite lines comes at the end of the novel: 

"They say that a black hole lives at the center of every galaxy. And I believe that now. There would always be a black hole at the center of me, my galaxy, my life. But it's mine. It's part of me. I faced it. I trained it. I tamed it. And finally, I set it free. There's a hole at the center, but that's okay, because it's full of such beautiful, beautiful things."

I've been continually surprised by how many parents come to the library asking for suggestions for their children only to look at me in horror when I mention that a book is sad. "We don't read sad things," they say. Uh, I only read sad things, so... I try to explain to them that sadness is an emotion that must be explored, confronted, maybe even stewed in for a while, and that books are the perfect practice range for this type of thing, and that their children will be better equipped for having already dwelt there, but no. "We're trying to avoid that particular emotion," said one. I get it if you've just gone through a trauma, but to deny sadness forever is to deny a great swath of being human and it just pisses me off so much. And how boring are books that feature like, no stinging conflict, no risk, no growth? Enjoy your novelization of the Minions movie, kid. Stella herself says it best: 

"I felt less alone, that was for sure. I realized how much my brother and I needed each other. I realized how much I took Mom for granted, and how much I missed her while we were gone. I guess that's what pain can do if you allow it: crack you open, let light in, and show you what's on the inside. Our adventure through the dark had shown me shades and hues of myself that I couldn't have otherwise seen." 

All of that for a whopping 5 Accelerated Reader points!!!!!!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

TheMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh

Part of my problem is that I compare every uniquely formatted novel to House of Leaves. TheMystery.doc is nothing like House of Leaves - it isn't even in the same genre, or really formatted at all like House of Leaves, so, naturally, I'm disappointed. But if I look past my bigotry, I can appreciate TheMystery.doc for what it is. At least, I think I can? It turns out that I'm not really sure what it is. But I liked it... I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here?

This is a frustrating book. Sometimes you'll be in a groove, and you'll feel the epiphany coming. And then it'll all get dashed away with a series of movie stills that you can't quite piece together, or three pages of asterisks. Then the scene will shift and you've forgotten the hard-won revelation. Soon, you'll just be thankful that you can recognize your own emotions. I felt sad a lot, I felt frustrated most of all, and sometimes I was intrigued (does anyone know why the inside flaps say this is a funny book?). Maybe that's the point? That everything is always ripping away from us and all we really know is how we feel? 

I don't know. NPR did a really nice review, and I think it explains how a book I didn't understand at all deserves 3 stars: "... And then, for some reason, something would catch my eye. A phrase, a picture, something, and something would turn over in my chest and I'd get it. I'd understand what McIntosh was doing. And I'd love the damn book for making me feel the way that almost no book ever has — for making me feel alive and rooted in this one stupid world of ours with all its randomness, all its awfulness and all its beauty. Then, five minutes later? Back to hating it"