Sunday, February 01, 2009

Random Reading

The Chronicle Books spring and summer children's catalog arrived last month. I only had time to browse, but Classic Western Stories, compiled by Cooper Edens, caught my eye because I'd recently recommended a western novel for YA readers. Plus, I've wondered in the past if kids would read western.

Chronicle Books publishes a lot of art books, including art board books.

Then back while I was on vacation (can you believe I'm still talking about that?), I bought a copy of that week's Sunday New York Times, a treat that goes back to my college days and one that I rarely have time for. That issue included an article called Hapless Boy Wins Eager Friends, about the popularity of the Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney. I've only just read the article because I was on retreat from all kid reading while I was on vacation.

I have not yet read any of the Wimpy Kid books because they're written in diary format, and I have trouble getting enthused for reading those kinds of books. However, I hear a lot about them when I go into schools. Kids love them. The diary format doesn't bother them one bit.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vacation Reading: Book One, An Adult Mystery With YA Appeal

I took a sabbatic from reading kids' books while I was on vacation. And, yet, three of the books I finished have a kid connection of one sort or another.

For instance, On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith has what I would call a thematic connection to YA. On the Wrong Track is the second in the Holmes on the Range series, Western mysteries set in the 1890s. Our narrator is twenty-year-old Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, a cowboy who wanders with his twenty-seven-year-old brother Gustav "Old Red."

Seems pretty remote from twenty-first century YA readers, doesn't it? Well, the thing is, Gustav wants to be more than an illiterate cowpoke of few words. He wants to be a deducifier like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. And his little (though physically quite enormous) brother, Otto, wants to write up their adventures and publish them like Dr. Watson did Holmes'.

Though these two red-headed brothers are twenty-somethings, they seem younger (to the extent that people who are handy with guns and foul language can seem young) because they're trying to determine who and what they're going to be. In this book, they run into a burned out, dime novel hero who is not what he once was and maybe never was. They have to deal, each in his own way, with a young, very intertriguing, woman. They are confronted with disappointment and all kinds of road blocks in pursuing their goals.

I'm not saying that On the Wrong Track is a YA book, but it deals with issues that are common in YA novels and that should have appeal for YA readers.

I also think that On the Wrong Track is a good historical novel. Many historical novels for younger readers are what I'd describe as unbalanced. A lot of attention has been given to the historical setting but characters are often underdeveloped or cliched and plots are weak. My own guess is that children's and YA historical fiction is viewed as being educational. Such books are supposed to teach something about the period and are given a pass on other elements.

The Holmes on the Range books, however, provide a strong setting, terrific characters who are at home in that setting, and real plots. Okay, a lot of those terrific characters use realisitic, coarse language, so you might not want to be the adult who hands off one of these things to a delicate twelve year old. But mid-teens will have heard it all before, and a good historical mystery could open their minds to the opportunities historical novels offer.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Will The Young Read Westerns?

A few weeks ago, I experienced an uncontrollable urge to read some adult books. But when I went to the library, I found myself drawn to titles that had a young slant of one kind or another. I was drawn to Holmes on the Range by Steven Hockensmith because of the Sherlock Holmes connection. Traditionally, Holmes has been connected with young readers, though I'm not at all sure if he's of much interest to them these days.

Holmes on the Range has a marvelous premise. A cowboy is exposed to some Sherlock Holmes stories and becomes so enamored of them that he wants to take up deducing himself. The book has a wry, dry, and earthy wit, many engaging characters, and what appears to be an authentic setting. Is it a book of interest to the young? Well, for older teens and early twenty-somethings, I think it could be.

Otto and Gustav Amlingmeyer are cowboys who drift from one cowpunching job to another. Otto is twenty years old (young character!) and known as Big Red because he's the enormous red-headed brother. (Ho! as one character often says. Red-headed brothers! Red-headed League!) Gustav is twenty-seven and known as Old Red because he's the older red-headed brother. Gustav is a bright guy. More than bright, maybe. But he is totally illiterate. Only his "little" brother, the youngest and only surviving member of their family, learned to read and write. He reads and writes well enough, in fact, to have worked in a feed store as a teenager.

It is young Otto who reads the Sherlock Holmes stories aloud to his brother while they're around campfires or in the bunkhouse. And it is Gustav, whose crazy uncle taught him not to believe in the predestination that many of their German calvinist neighbors still subscribe to, who cannot accept that he will be nothing but a poor, ignorant cowboy. He wants to be more. He wants to be a detective like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. (Who is real in the world of this book, though he doesn't actually appear.) He sets out to find himself a case to solve and find one he does. Solving the case means real life or death for the two brothers, but for Gustav it means spiritual life or death as well.

By the end of the book, the Amlingmeyers, who have had no direction in their lives other than staying together, both have plans for a future. Who am I? What am I going to be? Sounds like a YA-related theme to me.

And, really, in spite of the rather impressive body count by the end of the story, Holmes on the Range is a hopeful book.

Now the book includes what some might call classic western situations and some might call western stereotypes--the European ranch owners, the eastern dudes, the cowpoke who can't speak to women. Whichever attitude you take, Hockensmith does fun things with them. On top of that, the last generation and a half didn't grow up on a steady diet of TV westerns. This may be new, fertile ground for them. Or, having no concept of the Old West in their psyches, they may feel too removed from it to be interested. It could go either way.

Don't hand this book off to some delicate thirteen-year-old looking to move up from Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, by the way. Hockensmith does some wonderful things with similis but a lot of them are built around the business of outhouses. The dead bodies are graphicly described. And some of the characters exhibit the racist attitudes you might expect of the 1890s. By no means are the black cowboys portrayed in a racist way. But there are a few racists among their compadres.

If you want a less adult but equally entertaining western for younger readers, try Sunshine Rider, The First Vegetarian Western by Ric Lynden Hardman. The book was quite buzzworthy back when it was published in 1998. And that was when there were nowhere near as many Internet sites to create buzz.

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