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24 March 2018



I am pleased to report that children's and young adults' books continue to address current societal situations.  From overworrying about a child not having friends her age to deaf parent and/or sibling to being an exceptional or not-so-exceptional student in a poor public school to having a recovering alcoholic parent with a new set of recovering friends (Twelve Steps to Normal by Farrah Penn) to believing that having a successful vlog would be the answer to all 7th grade problems (Rae Earl's My Life Uploaded) to being a trailer park kid whose brother committed suicide (Preston Norton's Neaderthal Opens the Door to the Universe), these are not familiar situations to most tweeners and teens, but are also not unusual. The fresh, albeit somewhat zany, treatments could appeal to today's young readers.

In Christina Uss's first fiction book, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle, a little girl found outside the Mostly Silent Monastery fits right in as she has nothing to say, but "Bicycle," the word on her pink T-shirt.  Adopted, named after her seeming eponymous shirt and "homeschooled" by the administrative nun Sister Wanda, monks, maintenance man and other regulars of the monastery, Bicycle is happy, though a little short of companions her age.  They're so noisy, she thinks and prefers riding away from them on her bike Clunk.  Sister Wanda is worried and wants to send her to Friendship Factory, a camp where Bicycle can learn how to make friends and start by making friends with all the kids forced to attend Friendship Factory.  Bicycle decides world famous Polish bicycle racer Zbigniew Sienkiewicz would make a good friend and escapes to embark on a cross-country trip to meet Zbig at the Blessing of the Bikes in San Francisco.  Along the way, she learns more about America than she ever would have from Sister Wanda and gains some practical skills, knowledge and friends.  And, although her new friends are generally adults and one ghost (even Zbig is aged 19 to her 12), Sister Wanda in the end accepts that making friends is a process and involves a lot of luck.  The book is based on Uss's own cross-country bike trip and is a lot of fun, although the story does have requisite bad guys (gal) and is slightly unbelievable.  Hey, it's a lot safer than magic spells and rampaging zombies.

Another book with bad guys is Charlie & Frog by Karen Kane.  Charlie is always being abandoned by his parents off to save another endangered animal species in an exotic place across the world.  And, this time, they suddenly remembered his grandparents in Castle-on-the-Hudson, to whom they lodged him while they flew to South Africa to save the Giant Golden Mole.  Charlie's father had long ago learned the sign language alphabet and taught it to his wife so that they can silently communicate in the wilds and not startle the animals.  Charlie learned it by observation.  With lightening speed, much faster than his parents' painstaking movements, he could spell out words like G-I-A-N-T G-O-L-D-E-N M-O-L-E and T-H-A-N-K-S.  But, he did not know true American Sign Language (ASL) until he meets Francine ("Frog") whose family operates the Castle School for the Deaf (as well as the Flying Fingers Cafe) across the river.  It seems almost all of the inhabitants of Castle-on-the-Hudson know at least some ASL, and accept deaf people -- be they born deaf or become so due to illness or age -- as a matter of course.  Also, as a matter of course, they are all into preventing crime a la television show "Vince Vinelli's Worst Criminals Ever!," repeating the tagline "When crime is a fact, good people act! Good people do good things!"  If everyone in Castle-on-the-Hudson were really serious about suspecting there could be criminals anywhere (which apparently, they can be), Frog and Charlie wouldn't be able to have the run of the place.  The mystery is solved and Charlie learns not only ASL, but also how to be brave, and how to accept people as they are, but he still wants good parents, like Frog's who worries, scolds, makes the children do chores and eat mushy lentils & peas, but also, tucks everyone into bed and signs "I love you; I'm here if you need me," like good parents do.  The only complaint I have (and I haven't seen the finished book, so this might be moot) is that there aren't illustrations of all the ASL signs.  Some are fairly straightforward, e.g., fist to heart, but while I love words, I also agree that the adage that a picture can paint a thousand words.  So many words are spent describing the various signs that Charlie learns and I still think a glossary is needed.


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