Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Best Books You Probably Never Read

I don't mean to suggest you aren't well-read; I just mean these books are fairly obscure and most of them are children's books, so you might not have heard of them before. But they're worth a read even if you already have kids of your own.

The first is Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.  I read this when I was 12 years old and I've never forgotten it.  It's the story of a man in a concentration camp during World War II, but it's told alongside the original German version of Sleeping Beauty. By the way, the original is no bedtime story.  Every other chapter tells the heartache of the prisoner, and every other chapter tells the fairy tale, only the stories are intertwined.  It was the first book I ever read about World War II and concentration camps, and it was the best one, too. 

The second is my response to the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon, Twilight.  A note to all of you secret vampire-book fans -- L.J. Smith beats the pants of off Meyer anyday.  In the 1990s, she came out with a series of books called The Vampire Diaries; they're now being sold alongside Twilight at most chain stores, the trilogy repackaged as a fat black book you'll probably overlook if you ever wander into the adolescent book section (don't worry; I won't tell if you do).  It's the story of Stefan, his twin Damon, and Elena; like Twilight, it's a love story, but unlike Twilight, the main character has a spine and some intellect (sorry, Bella fans).  Stefan is the good vamp who wants to resist his nature; Damon is the bad one who wants to embrace it. And of course, as with all tween books, Elena has trouble choosing.  But unlike most tween books, the story is fantastic, the characters well-developed, and the imagination inspiring. At least, it was when I was 12. . . . OK so it's probably no Harry Potter but I loved it and still do.

The final book is not a kid's book: Phantom by Susan Kay.  I'm completely biased on this one for two reasons -- 1. I have always loved the story of Phantom of the Opera and 2. It's the catalyst for my life's devotion to literature.  Phantom is Kay's retelling of the Phantom of the Opera story, with much more emphasis on Christine's relationship with the famous masked man living in the catacombs of Paris's opera house.  It's a romance, and a complicated one, since Christine is engaged to (Pierre?).  I read it when I was 12 (I see a pattern developing here) as part of an AR reading program.  My history teacher interviewed each child and asked him/her questions about the book they selected, in part to see if the child read it, but in part to see if he/she interacted with it.  My history teacher, who was amazing, heard me babble for weeks about the book,  picked one up for herself, and read it.  So, when it was time for my interview, she knew enough about it to ask the meaty questions.  The end of the book (this gives nothing away) is undecided; Christine enters a room to be with the ailing Phantom, but the author doesn't take us there with her.  She just describes Christine as she exits.  The suggestion is that Christine finally gave the Phantom what he wanted, but nothing is overt.  Mrs. Jones asked, (and it was an appropriate question, given the scene), "What do you think happened at the end?"  

Well, I'd never been asked a question like that before.  I had always been told what happened in a book. I'd learned to take notes, write down themes, regurgitate answers on exams, but I'd never been asked my opinion about something unclear in a book before.  I answered her, and she gave her idea of what she thought, and we went on our way. It was a really small moment but it changed everything.  Books were not pages of facts but stories with endless possibilities.  Everyone has to know about this, I thought.  

And so, here I am today.  An innumerable amount of books later, I have a completed dissertation, set a defense date, and I'm one good committee's nod away from getting a chance to work at what Mrs. Jones only started.  So here's to optimism, good teachers, memorable books, and the holidays to read (or reread) as much as possible.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I'd like to add one to your young adult list that is frequently overlooked but that offers a lot of insight, especially today.

It's called The President's Daughter and, even though it takes place in the 80's, once you get past the references it's great.

The main character's mother runs for and wins the presidency and I dug it out and re-read it while the election was going on and a lot of it was pertinent. For example, the candidate and Obama's approaches are similar in that she decided not to play up the "woman" thing just like he downplays the "race" card.

Pick it up sometime, you'll read it in an hour or so and you'll get a chance to let your brain chill out a bit while also being stimulated.