Reading Matters blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Queen of the Gulf: Part 2

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the second part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.

In a while, my baggage stowed, I am in the passageway and the steward reappears. Serenely he shows me around. At ends of the halls, through glassed and curtained doors and paneled in oak, are the dining saloon, the library, the bar. Curtains are drawn, shutters closed against the sun. It is cool in here.

The steward leaves me in the library, among two felted bridge tables, two deep couches and two enormous old standing air conditioners, louvred and varnished boxes on the floor. Some books are inside a couple of small cases on writing tables. Inside are rows of dark-bound volumes, the titles running to mysteries (A Three-Pipe Problem), adventures and romances (The Ninety-Second Tiger), popular histories (With Smuts in the Boer War), and oddments (The Wandering Osprey, Portrait of the Pennines). Wondering what I’m going to read, I settle into a desk chair.

Shortly the door opens and the steward reappears. “Luncheon, sir,” he says. We go down a mahogany-trimmed staircase, through swinging doors into the dining saloon.

On this busy day lunch proceeds with quiet efficiency. Three long tables are covered in white linen. At one sit some customs officers, guests of the ship. At the central table are three Arabs in white, a dignified Indian couple and two British officers, caps removed. Behind them on the paneled wall a portrait of the Queen presides.

I am seated at the end of the empty table. A silver clip holds my menu, the setting is silver, the servers dish three courses from covered silver trays. Barely can one settle an empty water glass before one’s server is refilling it, from a silver pitcher; the silver buttons on his tunic are embossed with the Crown. Conversation is a murmur among soft clinking sounds.

After custard pie and coffee I wander back outside, where the shouting and activity boil unabated. The deck passengers still throng the rails, for and aft — they wave and dispute and clamor, as does the crowd on the quay, while nets and hooks steadily fill the holds that evidently are bottomless.

On the decks below, around the open holds, townships have appeared. Men and women have spread bedding and cloth and set up stations for cooking, and have made suitcases into barriers of bright-checked canvas and colored molded vinyl. 

Surrounding the encamped families are the cassette players and the electric fans, the attache cases, coolers, televisions, foam beds and insulated plastic water jugs that they are bringing home, fruits of their salaries here in Dubai. Women are cooking already, on small kerosene stoves. Men socialize, recline, play cards. Some people are sleeping. Others wander the decks, hands behind their baakcs. Two men pray, lifting and lowering on small ornamented carpets, under a lifeboat. 

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Queen of the Gulf: Part 1

In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. That book was rejected 75 times and never published — but years later it became the basis for my newest book, Street of Storytellers. Here is the first part of a chapter from the original Heart of the Bazaar.

The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.
    The terminal inside is a bare room, bare-floored. Some officials stand unstirring in the boarding-control area at the front, and from their feet a long line of men in plain cotton squats across the floor. These are workingmen, taking passage home, and they are sociable: some play cards and several hold cassette players, the big, silvery, twin-speaker kind.
    A large mound of baggage is also on the floor, and two people are sitting on the mound. A clutch of middle-class families, Indian or Pakistani, is drawn with children against one wall; a solitary gowned Arab perches on a side bench. A couple of refrigerators and two sizeable wooden crates are stood up by the cargo door.
    I stand a minute, then decide to join the line. Awkwardly I squat. A young Pakistani in front of me turned, puts out his hand. “Friend,” he says. I say “sure,” and shake it. The young man’s companions all turn, look at me, chatter and laugh. Then they turn back.
    As we sit ignored by the officials in front, the collection of cargo at the rear begins to multiply. Porters in colored pajamas truck in another refrigerator, a color TV, enormous suitcases bound in colored rope and great rolled bundles of bedding, likewise tied. Appliance crates and stereo boxes; more metal cases. Around the cargo door now is all the action — people giving orders, more porters scurrying, disputes at high syllabic speed. All the clatter rises with the pile, and the pile builds to monumental size.
    An official-looking Indian bustles past our line, holding a bunch of tags. He sees me and stops.
    “Cabin class?”
    “Yes, ‘B’ cabin,” I say, and hold up my ticket; but he doesn’t look at it, he waves me up the line. “You must go to the front. This line is not for cabin class. Don’t you see it?”
    “Oh. Well.” I get up, unbend my legs, haul up my stuff. On the floor the men all grin.
    The tag-strings hang in a tangle from this man’s hand. “Where are you going,” he says.
    “You will visit Pakistan.”
    He stands a minute. Then, “Don’t worry,” he says.
    “Oh — I’m not.” (I am.)
    “You will like Pakistan.”
    “Yes, I think I will.”
    “People are very nice there,” he says. “They will respect you.” Then he goes off, trailing his tags.

At the window up front I watch while Arab soldiers in khaki thumb through my passport, lean over it, pass it around. It disappears into an inner room, where more soldiers are. When it reappears finally and is handed back I’m waved to the dockside door. On the way stands a young British ship’s officer, in white with blue shoulderboards and officer’s cap. He keeps an eye on the squatting line.
    The men are deck passengers, I can see now: they are at this moment considered to be cooperative. I ask the officer if they’re Pathans, the people of the Northwest Frontier. He seems surprised.
    “Pathans, yes — and all kinds,” he says. “Every type imaginable.” I don’t think he knows. I go out and get on the bus, for the boat.
    We step off the dock and there, drawn up and swarmed over, is the last of the steamships.
    Her white hull is low to the water and she has simple, graceful lines. Her broad and squarish middle decks are white, the whole ship is white and immaculately trimmed, one clean funnel on top. The ship is compact, almost short, but broad or beamish, and in the midst of this clamor of loading and boarding she has a steady air. Around her are freighters, all far larger, but the steamship holds your eye. A blue banner down her gangway at midships reads, “RMS Dwarka — Queen of the Gulf.”
    That gangway is thick with moving people, and all down the deck rails people lean out, shout and wave their arms as a crane on deck lifts a load of appliances in crates from the mountains on the dock — swings the load up in its net, over the rails and down in the hold, as the crowd exuberantly offers directions. Ship’s officers in white more quietly direct, they stand holding radios amid the milling throng on the quay.
    That crowd ebbs and flutters around the great piles of crates and sacks and baggage. Porters haul up more, on carts and backs and hand trucks, as Indian shipyard officials move about holding clipboards. Young smoothies in open shiny shirts and pointed shoes shift attitudes, and Arab soldiers in berets and razor-pressed kkakis stand about and do nothing at all. Off to the side are the regal Arab businessmen, aloof and watching, gold Cross pens in their pockets.
    I join the crowd moving up the gangway, squeezing in behind a small boy who struggles, step to step, with a very large plastic water jug. At the top a tall young British officer with cool blue eyes stands unruffled as people shove and clamor past. Lifting his walkie-talkie, he radios down to hold the people a minute. He grins at me, his blue eyes unharried.
    “Like Picadilly Circus on a Saturday afternoon, this is,” he says, and he gazes down again, at another morning in an Arabian port.  

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

In the early 1980s I was in the midst of two years on the Indian Subcontinent, most of which I spent teaching English and writing tourist-magazine articles in Nepal’s capital city while I tried write my first book — a nonfiction account of my travels in Muslim Asia that would, many years later, become the background for my newest novel, Street of Storytellers.

I had left my American newspaper job months earlier to travel on the Persian Gulf and in Pakistan, trying to earn a better understanding of the Muslim world. Coming off that time on the road I had found work in Kathmandu, and it was in the throes of trying to get my book-writing off the ground — I went through reams and reams of typing paper on my portable Olivetti, and threw nearly all of it away — that someone told me about the library.

It had been the personal palace library of Field Marshal Kaiser Rana, scion of a ruthless dynasty that dominated this Himalayan nation from 1846 to 1951. The Ranas kept Nepal isolated, reserving wealth and education almost solely for themselves and building a collection of Asian-colonial-style mansions in the city. This one held Kaiser Rana’s personal library. His widow donated it to the nation in 1969, and the general’s personal retreat became of the world’s most unique public libraries, with over 50,000 books, documents and works of art.

I started spending afternoons in the Kaiser Library. You could say I got lost in it, but I’m not sure I was. I was exploring a trove of treasures. Once I had pored through its English volumes, pulled from those polished-wood shelves, about Muslim sections of the old British Empire, I pushed into a back corridor lined with metal cabinets — and in those I found Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God.

I was already a Campbell reader — his The Hero with a Thousand Faces had informed and shaped my journey, as it has for so many others — but this was new. I spent weeks working through Campbell’s four volumes about mythology, Primitive, Oriental, Occidental and Creative, filling notebooks and writing down passages. I’ve never been much of a fantasy reader, or writer, but in those books I think I found something of what young readers so often discover in today’s fantasy series: exciting stories that are timeless, and that bring us a sense that the struggles of life really do have meaning.

The Kaiser Library is still there; the book I began in Kathmandu was rejected 75 times and never published, but I kept on writing, and the Kaiser Library has stayed with me through these years. The memory of my afternoons there, deep in among those books and paintings — there was a stuffed mongoose, too, coiled atop a bookshelf, as if to strike a cobra — feels, to me, as valuable as a personal legacy. I suppose, in a way, that’s what it is.

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Cross-Cultural YA Fiction: 10 Good Books

Last spring and summer I asked teachers, school librarians and bookstore people to suggest middle-school and YA novels that place an American main character in another culture or country. This is a strong way to connect American young readers with diverse cultures — plus, I’ve always liked reading novels like this.

From all the recommendations that came in, I selected and read 10 novels, blogging about each one. Here’s the list, ranked from my most favorite on down — with summaries of what I thought.

1. Endangered (Congo), Eliot Schrefer. No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. A
powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates — bonobo and human — are capable of.

2. Nowhere Boy (Belgium), Katherine Marsh. A privileged American and a desperate young Syrian refugee meet in a most unexpected way — and the American’s life finds a purpose. This is a rare achievement: a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story.

3. Laugh With the Moon (Malawi), Shana Burg. A girl closed to her own grief opens up to the village world where she has to be for a summer. I loved this book.

4. Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Iran), Adib Korram. Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his family from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. This is not a novel of dramatic events — but as Darius gradually makes personal connections in Yazd, the story grows deeper and more meaningful on the inside.

5. Habibi (Israel), Naomi Shihab Nye. This is a 1997 novel whose narrator, like the author, has a Palestinian dad and an American mom — and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem. At first focused on conveying the Palestinian side of heavy-handed Israeli rule, the novel opens up into something broader and deeper, yet still challenging.

6. Listen, Slowly (Vietnam), Thanhha Lai. The cultural immersion here is richly detailed and engaging. The story itself, about an American-born Vietnamese girl enlisted in the search for a grandfather lost in the war, isn’t quite as strong, but it's a rewarding read even so.

7. Escape Under the Forever Sky (Ethiopia), Eve Yohalem. An American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped — then escapes. In this thrilling adventure deep into a totally different world, the human spirit pushes through stark dangers and striking cultural differences.

8. Small Damages (Spain), Beth Kephart. A pregnant high schooler is shipped secretly, and reluctantly, to rural Spain to have and then give up her baby. The storytelling can be confusing, but it makes us think and feel. I’d love for all boys to read this.

9. Elephant Run (Burma), Roland Smith. I wanted to like this WWII yarn, about a colonial planter’s son caught by the Japanese invasion in a community of elephant drivers, more than I actually did. An inventive plot, but flat storytelling and characters.

10. Wanderlove (Central America), Kristin Hubbard. A celebration of backpacking travel in which local culture is entirely background, and the self-absorbed main character never meets anyone local who isn’t selling or serving her.

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Kidnapping, Escape and African Wildlife: An Ethiopian Adventure

This is the tenth and last in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Escape Under the Forever Sky, thanks to Sharon M. Lawler, MA, MSLS of San Antonio, Texas. And a very sincere thanks to everyone who suggested titles or responded to these posts! I’ve had a fine time doing this.

Escape Under the Forever Sky is a sweet novel, a suspenseful story that’s well-researched and engagingly informative. I didn’t know, for example, that, as author Eve Yohalem writes, “half a million Ethiopian kids die every year from disease and bad nutrition.” Or that “lions don’t want to get into fights with other lions; they roar so other lions will avoid them.” Or that there really was a 12-year-old girl, kidnapped from her village in southern Ethiopia in 2005, who was saved when three wild lions surrounded her and chased her captors away.

Yohalem based her novel on that incident. She invented a 13-year old main character and narrator, Lucy, who is the daughter of the American ambassador in Addis Ababa and is snatched away from an illicit outing with an Ethiopian friend.

Lucy’s a pretty regular teen when we meet her, chafing under her mother the ambassador’s rigid — and, it turns out, quite necessary — protections. She dreams of a freer life (and a village boy in her school), but at the same time she swallows up everything she can learn about African wildlife. In the end, her yearning to be liberated, her knowledge of wild animals and her crush all play a part in her survival. As do some lions. But mainly it’s her amazing resourcefulness, which becomes totally believable, that an ordinary kid could find that inside herself.

When my book The Revealers was being used by a lot of schools, I had the privilege of visiting dozens of middle schools all over the U.S. and talking, sometimes in depth, with hundreds of young adolescents. What I learned, most of all, is that so many of our country’s young people — from every background — are smart, curious, full of dreams and aware of the world. Whether that is more or less so in this age of smartphone absorption I do not know. But the human spirit comes through; you see it, and you draw hope from it.

This is the best thing about Escape Under the Forever Sky. It’s not that this is a great novel; it’s a very good adventure, vividly told, and it absorbs us into a totally different world. And in the process, Yohalem’s narrative lets the resilience, determination and incredible — and generally untapped — capacities of the human spirit come through and envelop us. That’s why this is so worth a read.

Oh ... and you learn about lions. And about colobus monkeys, Swayne’s hartebeest and gelada baboons. And that hyenas, which have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom, secrete something called “hyena butter” from their butts to mark their territories.

I did not know that.

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In a jungle village, a Boston girl finds her heart — and touches ours

This is the ninth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Laugh with the Moon, thanks to Katy Manck, MLS, a “librarian-at-large” in Gilmer, Texas who is president of the International Association of School Librarianship. Katy writes about YA books, “beyond the bestsellers,” at

Some novels are just winning. They first win your attention, then your interest and connection — and finally, if they’re really good, they win your love. That’s how it was, for me, to read Laugh with the Moon.
           Author Shana Burg draws on years-ago experience with rural education in Malawi, a tiny landlocked nation in southeast Africa, to take us there — very grudgingly, at first — with 13-year-old Clare. She’s a doctor’s daughter whose mom passed away about a year ago. Her dad brings her with him for two months in a jungly rural district deep in Malawi, where he’ll work for an international medical charity and she will attend a local school.
          From the first moments after the Air Malawai plane lands and its door opens, as “tiny beads of sweat bubble up all over my skin” and all Clare sees through her window is “forest-green, olive-green, green-gold. And rain, rain, rain,” we are immersed with her in this world that’s so different from her home life in Boston. Deep in a grief she doesn’t know what to do with, Clare is giving her dad the silent treatment. “I doubt I’ll ever smile again,” she thinks.
          She’s wrong, of course; but it takes the whole story for her to find the laughter the book’s title promises. In Mzanga Village Primary, where she’s the only white student in school and is welcomed with this culture’s generous warmth, Clare knows right away she’ll be friends with Memory, a girl her age who has lost both parents. She gets to know other classmates, too — the troublesome Agnes, the handsome Saidi and Handlebar, a boy whose mother rode on a bicycle’s handlebars to reach a hospital and have her baby. When a weekend day trip lurches suddenly toward tragedy, Clare has to confront heartbreak all over again ... and, with the deep connections she has found here, at last she is able to open. To her grief, to sadness ... to everything.
          This is an engaging read and a beautiful story. It’s funny and inspiring to witness, with Clare, the ways the village kids and those who try their best to teach them cope with privations and challenges far beyond those that face even the most resource-poor American school. Burg’s characters rise easily from her pages to life. And in the end, her novel pries open our hearts, even just a little, right along with Clare's.

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Sent off to Spain, a pregnant, confused teen feels for what’s real

This is the eighth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries.

In Beth Kephart’s Small Damages, high schooler Kenzie gets pregnant near the end of her senior year, having suddenly lost her dad the previous fall. Her Yale-bound, high-achiever boyfriend Kevin declines to link his own options to Kenzie’s, pointedly asking her, “What are you going to do?” Kenzie’s difficult mother, declaring “Someday you’ll be grateful,” packs her daughter off to Spain, where an old friend knows a couple that wants a baby.
           So Kenzie finds herself on a ranch somewhere near Seville, where a well-known breeder raises bulls for the bullring. Confused and generally unpleasant to everyone around her, she’s placed in the care of Estéla, a gruffly commanding artist in the kitchen. Estéla seems to be an older person, though you have to read most of the book to puzzle that out. There’s also Esteban, who seems to be close to Kenzie’s age, and who seems to have a gift for befriending birds.
          This is an interesting novel, and it makes you think and feel. It’s also confusing. Kephart carefully researched traditional Spanish culture, and she places us right in its midst — but, I think to create an impressionistic experience, she chooses to give us only spotty information. What do these characters look like, and how old are they really? What type of birds are the two that Esteban lives with; and who are the gypsies who appear, angering Estéla for a reason that only gradually clarifies, and who continue to hang around playing music? I, at least, had these questions and more.
          Much that’s vivid does come through. We can all but smell and taste the dishes Estéla prepares, as Kenzie finally starts to open up and their relationship grows genuine and soulful. There are more bright glimpses of local culture, as when people toss flowers from rooftops in Seville down onto musicians in the street; but much of the story just floats in the vague space Kephart creates for it. Kenzie’s struggle with the choices that have been imposed on her, then with the essential one that only she can make, feels very real — and the unexpected decision she finally does make is believable and beautiful.
          I’d love to see teenage boys everywhere read this book, though I think young readers might be a bit frustrated by the author’s way of storytelling. Kephart tries very hard to write beautifully and originally, and often she succeeds. But she doesn’t always keep the reader, puzzling through the story, uppermost in mind.

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Teenage girl discovers backpacking travel. Okay, but ...

This is the seventh in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Wanderlove, thanks to Carole Soden in Carpenteria, Ca.

Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove is the story of an awkward, unconfident 18-year-old LA girl who, having been painfully discarded by an artist boyfriend, suppresses her own love for drawing and heads out alone on a trip the two had planned into Central America. Soon after, Bria ditches the tour group she’d signed on with and begins an unmapped adventure with a pair of young free-spirited backpackers — and then with just one, an enigmatic boy named Rowan.
           Over the course of more than 300 pages, Bria ... becomes cooler. Becomes a backpacker. Rediscovers her drawing talent, and ... well, as for the boy, what happens is not so hard to predict. Nor is the whole thing. It’s a nice enough romance/self-discovery story, even if the characters never fully come to life — and even though Bria, in visiting Guatemala and then a party-central island in Belize, never interacts with a local person who’s not serving her or selling to her. Obsessed with her own drama, she never learns a thing about the cultures she’s moving through. And that’s a little sad.
          I was a backpacker. I traveled and lived overseas for a good bit of my twenties, and I was also caught up in my own dramas and search for meaning and self — but I think I learned something about the people and places I encountered. Sure, most of the people I met and friends I made were fellow travelers, and sure, most of us gravitate toward people like ourselves; but the idea of backpacking travel is to reach past that. To push ourselves beyond ourselves and our small worlds.
          Bria never does. She idealizes backpackers, and Wanderlove does too. If that encourages more young people to open up and try the romance of traveling without a formal program or itinerary, that’s a good thing. Maybe a very good thing, in this era when we so much need to discover what’s beyond our own culture.
          But for the discovery itself — for popping the little, self-reflective bubbles we each carry around ... I would, I have to say, suggest looking elsewhere.

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Escaping a brutal war. In Congo, with a bonobo. On summer vacation.

This is the sixth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Endangered, thanks to Lisa Allocca of William J. Johnston Middle School in Colchester, Ct.

It’s one thing to write an epic fantasy. It’s another entirely to write a realistic YA novel that’s genuinely epic — that takes us, say, through a constantly life-threatened adventure that makes intimately real the agonies of an African nation as it’s traumatized by yet another war.
         Then blend in an astonishing portrayal of the ways and very personal behaviors of bonobos, the ape species closest to us in genetic makeup — and tell it all through the eyes, emotions and skin sensations of a half-American teenage girl as she struggles through forest, marsh and jungle to elude violent death, or worse, with a beloved bonobo at (and on) her side. In Endangered, Eliot Schrefer does all that. And more.
        On summer break from her American middle school, 14-year-old Sophie is visiting the bonobo sanctuary her mother runs in Congo when, while mom is away on a work trip, a sudden rebellion or invasion overwhelms the country’s capital region. Predatory fighters annihilate the sanctuary staff. Only Sophie escapes, with a young bonobo, and the desperate journey the two go on is beyond capsulizing.
        Schrefer spares us no reality. Not the crazed murder sprees, the burning of corpses, or the reason for the rebellion — turns out it’s backed by First World interests that crave Congo’s minerals, to make our electronic devices. We also encounter unexpected kindness, the dignity of villagers who’ve lost everything but that, and rich description everywhere. When Sophie sees a train of refugees trudging through mud in their best clothes — “one mother was in a gorgeous red-and-green pagne wrap, her sons drowning in suits whose shoulder pads hung around their elbows” — she knows they’ve dressed up for a rescue that will never come.
        Sophie herself, as she witnesses gruesome horror, adapts to incredible privations, and coolly soldiers on, doesn’t seem much like any teenager I’ve known — but who’s to say what someone plunged into such a situation could find inside themselves? Sophie is ordinary, until she isn’t — and she’s not the story’s only hero.
        This book might be tough for some kids to absorb. But it’s not long, and its very skillful narrative makes clear and understandable the deep complexities it explores. Endangered is an unforgettable adventure, and an awe-inspiring achievement.

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Amid Europe’s deadly tensions, two boys find a common cause

This is the fifth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting Nowhere Boy, thanks to both Sue Gail Spring at Norwood School in Bethesda, Md., and Carole Oglesby at Mallets Bay School in Colchester, Vt.

There are novels you don’t want to end, and ones you know you’ll be thinking about a long time after they do. Katherine Marsh’s Nowhere Boy is both.
           This very involving story centers on two boys, about the same age, who find themselves in Brussels, a city that’s not their own and that neither one chose. Max’s American family is here for his dad’s posting with NATO, and his parents hope that by plunking Max in a local school he’ll somehow learn French and find motivation. Ahmed, a young Syrian, lost most of his family to a government bombing in Aleppo, then his dad disappeared in the Mediterranean trying to tow a sinking rubber boat full of refugees to uncertain landfall in Greece.
           Ahmed winds up in Brussels, broke and alone with only a fake Syrian passport. When he takes desperate refuge, one night in a dank room deep in the basement of Max’s family’s townhouse, the two boys are on track to meet. When they do, Max’s life begins to find a sense of purpose, but one he has to hide from almost everyone.
           Nowhere Boy is a rare achievement, a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story. The narrative pulls us in deeper as its characters struggle and evolve and everyone, on all sides, is swamped by the confused tension the flood of Muslim refugees has brought to Europe. Amid gruesome terror eruptions, there are no simple answers. But the story finds one simple truth: the vast majority of refugees are just people and families, not furthering violence but seeking safety from it.
          Strong female supporting actors include Farah, Max’s sympathetic Moroccan classmate; Claire, his self-involved older sister whom life hasn’t yet really challenged; and Madame Pauline, his after-school tutor who tightly views Muslims as refusing to fit in and endangering Europe’s hard-won post-World War II peace. That war haunts the story, too, as a true tale of one neighborhood man’s sacrifice for one Belgian Jewish boy helps Max understand the choices he’s now making, and why.
           This is a fine, fine novel. Its moral purpose peeks through sometimes a little too plainly — but the strength of the character-weaving narrative, with its gripping action and meaningful suspense, makes its lessons an outcome of the experience, not an author’s overlay. Max and Ahmed, and their friends and pursuers, will all be with me for a while. I’m grateful for that.

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A somewhat good adventure among elephant drivers in wartime Burma

This is the fourth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. In writing about Elephant Run by Roland Smith, I’m stretching that profile a bit: the main character here is English. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Mike Baginski, recently retired from a longtime teaching career at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, Vermont.

Elephant Run has an admirable intent: soon after the outbreak of World War II, send readers into a village deep in the interior of British-colonial Burma with Nick Freestone, the teenage son of an Englishman who oversees this community of elephant drivers, or mahouts, from Hawk’s Nest, a grand home built by his late father, the indomitable Sergeant Major. When Japanese troops occupy the village and make Hawk’s Nest their headquarters, Nick becomes a prisoner and a forced laborer, while his father is taken off to an unsure fate.
      The plot, as they say, thickens. There’s a a haiku-composing Japanese sergeant, and a growing conflict of loyalties among the elephant drivers who had hoped the invaders would be their liberators, but turn out to be brutal on a new level. There’s Mya, a very attractive Burman girl who’s being menaced by a mahout allied with the Japanese; and there’s Hilltop, a mysterious, elderly Buddhist monk whom all the villagers revere and, for that reason, the occupiers can’t touch. And within Hawk’s Nest, it turns out there’s a secret catacomb of passageways, listening posts, and food and armament stores.
      Will Nick survive? Can he protect the beautiful Mya, and somehow find and rescue his dad? And what about Hannibal, the dangerous rogue elephant who’s been hidden on a tangled island from the occupiers?
      It’s an inventive plot, a good story, but somehow there’s a flatness. The characters don’t feel three-dimensional. The storytelling is mechanical, and the dialogue is, too. The writing often feels rushed, and the landscape and culture of the interior, which should be fascinating, never really come to life.
      I’m not a critic and I don’t like critiquing another author, especially one who’s taken on a gutsy adventure like taking us all at once into traditional mahout culture, the last violent throes of the colonial era, and a teenager’s experience of a rarely chronicled theater of the Second World War. For all those reasons, Elephant Run is worth reading. I just wish — sorry, Roland — that I had enjoyed it more.

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Going deeply into Vietnam, with a girl who doesn’t want to

     This is the third in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Dr. Genene Meli, curriculum coordinator at Frankford Township School in Branchville, NJ.
     We experience Listen, Slowly through the eyes, emotions and — oh, definitely — the attitude of Mai/Mia. She’s Mai at home in California with her Vietnam-native parents, and Mia at school and with best friend Montana, who has boobs when Mia doesn’t and whose crises are about lip gloss and hair braids. Mia wants only to spend the summer orbiting near on a certain boy she’s never actually spoken to, whom she describes only as HIM.
      But instead, at the start of summer vacation, author Thanhha Lai transports Mai to Vietnam to accompany her grandmother on a quest to learn the fate of her grandfather, who disappeared during what Mai calls THE WAR. On the plane where we meet Mai, the attitude is at a sulking peak. On this journey with her, we can hope, and it seems possible, that Mai/Mia will open up to her family’s native culture, and that — since THE WAR is involved — she might discover some deep new dimensions of life.
      In grandmother Bá’s home village in the north near Hanoi, Bá and Mai are welcomed with feasting and warm, embracive hospitality. Mai responds by teaching local girls how to cut their panties into thongs, even though she herself — “a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab” — doesn’t like thongs. She just doesn’t want to be there, she wants to go home. And whenever she possibly can, she’s texting and Facebook-checking back home, where the busty Montana is full-court-pressing HIM.
      The storytelling here isn’t as strong as the cultural immersion, which is quite detailed and very engaging. We can almost taste all the fresh food specialties that Mai eats, and enjoys more and more. But gradually, eventually, Mai, her grandmother and we discover what happened to her grandfather. It is horrifying. A grotesque, unfathomable circle of hell.
      We never quite understand, at least I didn't, which side her grandfather was fighting on in the WAR ... but as his awful fate is slowly uncovered, Mai makes a local friend. She comes to appreciate the subtleties of the language. And finally — mostly — she shrugs off the drama and opens herself up to being the companion, helper and granddaughter that Bá needs as the two of them ultimately, heartbreakingly uncover the truth.
      Is Mai/Mia transformed? That will unfold over time, in her life. Is she more the whole, bicultural young person she has a right to be? Oh yes.

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HABIBI: Heartache and Humanity inside Palestinian Jerusalem

This is the second in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Elizabeth Bluemle at the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.

Today’s NY Times has an oped on how Palestinians view next week’s elections in Israel — basically, without much hope. Or with crushed hopes and resignation. The writer is a Palestinian attorney and author who wearily sums up the latest, largest ways official Israel has eroded those hopes. It’s a point of view Americans don’t see, or hear, or feel very often. Which brings me to Habibi.

This YA novel by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet and novelist, came out in 1997 but is every bit as unsettling and powerful today — the more so because it’s a poet’s novel. Central character Liyana is an observant teenager whose own poetics are just rising in her notebooks. Like the author, she has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem.

This is a poet’s novel in the softly eloquent ways Nye conveys Liyana’s new world through her impressions of it. One short chapter, “What You Can Buy in Jerusalem,” is a soft tumult of images: little gray Arabic notebooks, rich and shiny brocade cloth, roasted chickpeas, vials of water from the Jordan River, “gooey, sticky, honey-dipped, date-stuffed fabulous Arabic desserts,” and much more.

Sometimes the impressions overwhelm the characters and narrative; but gradually and with many personal interactions, Nye builds more than a simple story. Habibi gives us Jerusalem and its surroundings from the Palestinian side, bringing that community and its traditions, frustrations and shattering losses to life. But then the novel introduces a young Israeli guy to whom Liyana is strongly drawn — and things get complicated, as it seems they inevitably do in this place of complexities that are both age-old and ever-present.

As Liyana and Omer grow close, the story opens into one that’s broader, deeper, and honestly challenging. The only real answer, Habibi seems to insist, is our own humanity. Its final chapter, “Doors,” begins with this epigram: “There is a door in the heart that has no lock on it.”

For me, at least, this unusual novel opened that door just a little wider.

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Visiting family in Iran, an American kid finds acceptance & connection

This is the first in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Jessica Storch and Greg Symon at Frankford Township School, Branchville, NJ.

Adib Korram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay has a faraway setting and interior goals. Awkward, unconfident Darius is a “fractional Persian” — his mom is Iranian, while his blue-eyed dad is not — and he accompanies his parents and younger sister on a trip from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. Darius’s grandfather is there with a brain tumor, and there Darius discovers friendship, an ancestral culture with great food, and a sense of belonging and mattering for the first time in his life.

It’s not a novel of dramatic events. Darius makes a friend in Yazd, the family meets relatives and neighbors and eat a lot, they visit sights, some painful things happen, and Darius is sorry to leave. But on the inside the story grows deeper and more meaningful. Khorram conveys a culture in its place — a Zoroastrian, Muslim and Bahá’í community in central Iran — in a really human, unromantic way; at the same time, he gives us an experience of gradually letting down your personal walls.

Darius struggles with depression. When we meet him, he’s bullied at school and he’s defensive and isolated. Then Yazd doesn’t overwhelm him; he sees it mostly as a place with plain, low buildings the color of khaki, and with some people that he likes and some he doesn’t. But people start to reach out for the unconfident kid, and Darius finds himself fitfully, awkwardly, then generously opening up. That doesn’t happen without setbacks. But it happens.

It’s a good story. The author aims to share the experience of depression, stripping it of shaming and easy answers; this works well, and he includes some resources at the end. I also loved how Khorram makes a very different culture both distinctive and ordinary — the food is exotic and appealing, but the people are just people, some small-minded but most kind and generous. When Darius makes a friend who has a deep struggle too, their opening to each other is not simple. Neither is being Persian; he doesn’t even speak the language. But as he learns to embrace more of who he is, depression and all, we see and feel — and understand, in the end — that there’s a whole lot more he can be.

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Finding fiction that encounters other cultures through an American kid's eyes

The new Voyages Issue of the New York Times Magazine has a profile of Rick Steves, host of a public TV series on traveling in Europe. The article’s subhead is: “The travel guru believes the tiniest exposure to other cultures will change Americans’ entire lives.”

I believe that too; it was true in my life. And right now in the world of middle-grade and YA fiction, there’s strong and growing interest in exposing American young readers to novels that create this sort of cultural exposure through a story. I myself think one especially strong way to do that is by finding and sharing good novels, for young readers, that transport an American main character into another country.

To encounter another culture through the eyes and emotions of someone like yourself — that’s a bridge that is relatively easy and inviting to cross. So I have a project. Last weekend I emailed my mailing list of over 400 teachers, librarians, principals and others that I’ve worked with in schools, and I asked this question: Can you recommend a good middle-grade or YA novel in which an American main character encounters another, preferably foreign culture?

I got quite a few responses — and from them I whittled down the list to recommended novels that fit this specific profile. I left off one or two that looked to be using a foreign locale as just a stage setting for a romance. That’s fine to do, of course, but it’s not what I’m looking for.

I will read these books, over the coming weeks — and I will blog about each one. Here is my list:

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram (Iran)
Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestine)
Nowhere Boy, Katherine Marsh (Belgium/Syria)
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (Vietnam)
Moving Target, Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Rome)
Small Damages, Beth Kephart (Spain)
The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R. Pan (Taiwan)
First Descent, Pam Withers (Colombia)
Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa, Micol Ostow (Puerto Rico)
Wanderlove, Kristin Hubbard (Central America)
Love and Gelato, Jenna Evans Welch (Tuscany)
Laugh With the Moon, Shana Burg (Malawi)
Endangered, Eliot Schrefer (Congo)
The Carnival at Bray, Jessie Ann Foley (Ireland)
The Shells of Mersing, Sharon Himsl (Malaysia)

If you have a title to add, please email me!

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The Shells of Mersing, Sharon ...

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Writing, music, and community

In this part of Vermont’s Champlain Valley, I’m lucky enough to play music in a couple of local bands — and recently, a bandmate got an email from a friend. The friend’s wife and their family had just gone through a serious health scare, and listening to our music had helped them get through it. Hearing this touched us all, and it got me thinking about music, books, and community.

Writing is lonely. It’s solitary, and you can work for years on a book that never sees print. That’s just how it is, and I’ve done this work as a fulltime freelancer and writer of books, published and not, for over 30 years. Making music in groups is newer for me, I’ve done it for about half that time — and when you do that in front of people, you often see they’re having fun and they’re happy. People like your stuff. They come to see you, and maybe your music even matters in their lives. In local music, I’ve found, the community that develops doesn’t have to be huge to be matter and be satisfying. Why can’t book-writing have a similar aim?

Traditional book publishing has been taken over by huge corporations. Foreign-owned multinationals control all of the “Big Five,” the corporate houses that have absorbed nearly all the long-standing publishers. Unless they see you as a bestseller, it’s extremely hard to get these houses to pick up your manuscript — but at the same time, there’s been a profusion of small, independent publishers, of hybrid publishers where the author helps pay the cost of bringing out a book, and of self-publishing efforts. For those of us who’ve taken “indie” paths, it’s not terribly realistic to hope for a big bestseller — but in this connected time, when people of similar tastes and interests can find each other, we can hope to build a community. It can even be worldwide.

And why not? You won’t get rich this way, but very very few writers ever have. Can I find or help build a community of people who like a book I’ve done, and can we be supportive of each other? That, I think, would be a solid form of success. I've even seen it happen: there's a nationwide, even international, community of people, mostly in middle schools, who have worked with and cared about The Revealers. That book didn't make me rich, but it helped me earn a living and keep on writing, and it made me a whole lot of friends. So I’ve seen how much that can mean — and honestly and truly, it makes all the solitary work worthwhile.

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Putting down the damn phone

The Subaru I recently traded in — I didn’t get much for it, but they took it — had a vivid sign of my phone addiction. Well, “addiction” might be strong — I have hardly any apps on the phone, I’ve never tweeted once, and my phone isn’t even linked to the Facebook account I barely ever use. But the old car had a deep scratch across the driver’s-side windows, reminding me of the pre-dawn moment when, driving in a blizzard to the airport for a school-visit trip, at a spot where two lanes narrowed into one and a semi truck was crowding me on the right, I felt it was a good time to check my text messages.

I know. And the corner of the traffic sign that raked all down the side of my then-pristine car ... well, that was a message. And one that I’m trying, finally, to heed.

The addiction aspect, for me, is that the phone urges you to check it all the time. In the checkout line at the supermarket. During dinner with family. While driving, which I’m finally really trying not to do. So I’m drawn to articles about breaking this dependence, about learning to put ... down ... the phone. There was a good one in the New York Times the other day: “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

The writer’s problem was, I feel smugly, far worse than mine. He did much more to break the habit, and had much more to say. For me, this is mainly about discovering that an urge is just an urge. Responding is very often just an empty experience — yet if I do, the urges get stronger. So when I’m driving and the urge to check email rises inside, I’m finding I can let it rise, then watch it fade. And wait to check the damn phone at a rest stop. Or a traffic light. I can do this.

I’m trying. I’m also, I notice, reading a lot more. And my new-to-me Subaru ... well, it carries no ugly reminders. I’m hoping to keep it that way.

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Leaving space between the words

I’ve been rereading the novel that turned me on to writing, in ninth grade. It’s The Human Comedy, a 1943 book about wartime life in a town in California that centers on the adventures of twelve-year-old Homer, a messenger boy for the Postal Telegraph who must deliver to parents the telegrams of death from the War Department, and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who watches and appreciates everything.

Saroyan wrote in a liberating way that carried original energy. He called it jumping into the river and starting to swim, and he opened me up to what writing could do. And his work was simple, simple, simple: there was space between the words.

I was a gawky unpopular kid who liked to read, and that year I swallowed everything that I could find by Saroyan — especially My Name Is Aram, his 1940 volume of gracefully lucid stories about growing up Armenian in Fresno, his home town that became the model for Ithaca in The Human Comedy. I took in the plain, humane clarity in these stories and thought, “I can do that!” But Saroyan’s simplicity is as deceptive as a great outfielder’s; it looks easy until you try it. Yet the writer left so much in the space between his words, so much to feel and connect with, that I’ve kept on trying to do it ever since.

I read both those books again this week, and Saroyan isn’t always perfect. He couldn’t work with editors, and The Human Comedy loses air in bursts of windy philosophizing that should have been trimmed back — but then consider this. It’s possibly the writer’s greatest sentence, from the opening chapter of The Human Comedy, describing how Ulysses finds an egg:

He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.

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Why did two fine stories leave me flat?

I had the flu. So I read. This is one redeeming thing about the flu.

When I’m sick I want either comic novels or good suspenseful stories — mysteries, spy novels. I also like historical fiction, and I love to get taken to different places in the world. So this time I read one spy novel, then another, by a well-known and very skilled writer, who set both books in 1945 at the end of the war, one in Berlin, the other in Istanbul.

The stories were excellent, deeply researched and finely crafted. I was happily immersed in their time and place ... yet at the end, I didn’t much care. Close to the end of the second, I almost didn’t even finish it. Didn’t seem to matter, really. Yet the writer did such a good job, in so many ways ... why did I not think about the stories after? Why did I not care?

Then I understood: I never came to care about the characters.

I should have, right? I mean, a dark time in deep settings, lots of moral complexity, struggling with serious evil ... and the characters were complex. They made mistakes. But ... I just didn’t care.

And that’s something to notice. A novel can’t be great or even really that good if the characters don’t come to life. They don’t have to be good, but they can’t be empty. Or leave you empty. If they do, then nothing else can really matter that much.

There’s no formula, no trick, no technique for this. It’s alchemy, I guess. Paul McCartney teaches songwriting to young people sometimes, and he starts by saying, “I really don’t know how to do this.” I doubt that any writer could tell another person how to make characters that connect with readers, I know I couldn’t ... but I think of the Harry Potter books. I think of Nick Hornby’s novels about rock ’n’ roll and soccer and guys, I think of John LeCarre’s spy stories. These are all so different, but their characters are alive.

I think that’s we’re looking for most of all. Good stories grow out of good characters, not from plotting or anything else mechanical or contrived. Great novels have life because their characters have life. I don’t know how you could ever teach that. But you know it when it happens, because inside you it is real.

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Spotting the Snow Leopard

I’m revisiting books that have meant something to me over the years, and I can’t remember if I ever finished The Snow Leopard. I don’t think I did. But it sort of changed my life anyway.

This time I did finish it. That’s not totally easy to do; Peter Mathiessen’s most famous book, for which he won the National Book Award, is brave and deep but also dense, intensely serious. I read it the first time, or most of it, in my late 20s as a weekly newspaper editor secretly preparing to leave my job and travel in Muslim and Buddhist Asia, hoping to write a revealing personal narrative as Mathiessen did. That he could get to such depth with such economy and precision was as inspiring to me as the courage of his journey — and so I set off on a journey of my own. (I did write my book, my first one, which nobody would publish. That’s another story.) 

Not long after losing his wife to cancer, Matthiessen joined the wildlife biologist George Schaller on a long, risky hike through the Himalayas in western Nepal, in late autumn with winter threatening, to explore the ancient Buddhist landscape of Dolpo beyond the mountains. Schaller hoped to learn about a rare breed of sheep, and maybe see the rarer snow leopard; Matthiessen hoped, surely, to get a good book out of the quest.

He surely did. Reading it again, the acuteness of his observation awes me as much as the depth of his phrasing. The man took incredible notes, but even more, he achieved, and conveys, incredible presence. And that in essence is what The Snow Leopard is about — the quest for true presence, genuine awareness beyond the cell of self. He almost, almost gets there. And then he has to start home. He never does see the snow leopard; but he does glimpse what he's truly searching for.

“What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments,” Matthiessen writes as he begins the journey back: “... In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us.”

So there you go. There, and back again.

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