Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time; When You Reach Me; Where the Wild Things Are

Fond memories linger despite wrinkles in time

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In my quest to introduce the best quality storybooks to my children, I've rediscovered some favourite book titles from my childhood. Now I have amassed a humble collection of books I read and loved years ago.
My parents didn't read aloud to me and I didn't become fluent in English until after we emigrated to Canada when I was seven, so I never read those early classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Cat in the Hat. As a result, my favourite books are stories that my daughters will probably not start to enjoy until they are in primary school.

One of my first purchases was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, science fiction for junior readers at its best. Re-reading it brought me back to those wonderful upper primary years in Mrs Taylor's class. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I would gather with a half-dozen other students to attend a special class that used an interdisciplinary approach to teaching. This class was very likely modelled on the International Baccalaureate programme, which didn't exist in Canada until I was in high school.
We worked on one class project per term and were taught maths, history, science and anthropology in that context. One of those projects was "Build a city of the future", in which we spent months creating architectural models, writing descriptions of the city we each envisioned (form of government, city planning, transport, family home life) and discussing our choices.

In my future city, the residents teleported. I must have been reading A Wrinkle in Time and taken the idea from the book. From there on, I went through a phase of reading science fiction and fantasy; one that sticks in my memory is a story by Ray Bradbury about a child who has moved to Venus and is locked in a closet by classmates on the one day every seven years when it stops raining and the sun comes out.

I didn't read science fiction as an adult until I re-read A Wrinkle in Time. Then I learned about the new book by Rebecca Stead in the young fiction category that had just come out. What prompted me to immediately obtain a copy of When You Reach Me was a book review describing it as a story that "pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time".

When You Reach Me is about Miranda, an 11-year-old girl living in New York City. Two incidents happen to her at the beginning of the story: her best friend is punched by a random kid on the way home from school, and she receives a cryptic message about her lost spare key. These two incidents end up being intertwined, and Stead spins a yarn inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In fact, A Wrinkle in Time is Miranda's favourite book, and she carries it with her wherever she goes.

It is of no surprise that When You Reach Me won many awards, including the 2010 Newbery Award.
A wonderful story inspired by another book is Dave Eggers' The Wild Things, loosely based on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. In this case, quot;inspired" means taking a 30-page children's picture book and fleshing it out into a 300-page adventure for Max, the main character, that includes divorced parents, an older teenage sister and many new characters on the island where the beasts live.

One of the hardest things to do when you write for junior readers is use the right language to communicate a young adult's point of view. While Stead does a better job than Eggers in finding that exasperated tone of innocent but all-knowing youth, their complex, multilayered stories will appeal to children and grown-ups alike, especially those of us who remember what it was like being on the cusp of adolescence.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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