PCP Two of Hearts: The Thing About Luck

the thing about luckThe Thing About Luck

by Cynthia Kadohata, with illustrations by Julia Kuo

Atheneum, 2013

I am a huge fan of Cynthia Kadohata’s work. Huge. I was on the committee that selected Kira-Kira, her first book for children, as the 2005 Newbery Medal winner, and I have loved every subsequent book. There is a quiet, raw honesty that runs through her writing, a transparency of language that sneaks up on you and, out of events that seem mundane, delivers something exquisite and profound. It’s like magic.

The Thing About Luck tells the story of a Japanese American farming family toiling amidst a flurry of bad luck. Sunny’s parents have been called away to Japan on emergency family business, leaving Sunny and her little brother Jaz in the care of her grandparents Obaachan and Jiichan, saddled with the back-breaking work of itinerant, contract wheat harvesting. Kadohata paints the circumstances in vivid, albeit plainspoken detail: Sunny’s fear of mosquitoes (she had malaria once); Jaz’s difficulty connecting; Obaachan’s strict, traditional ways; Jiichan’s tireless effort; and an impossibly thorough explanation farm machinery. And somehow, in the spaces between these definitions and explanations, she offers a tender, immediate, indelible portrait of family that is as touching as it is unique. These are people who love one another deeply, and Kadohata’s ability to show us that love, in the conflicts and struggles that would threaten it, is simply staggering.

Openly Straight

Openly StraightOpenly Straight

by Bill Konigsberg

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013.

In the hilarious comedy Anger Management, Jack Nicholson’s character (a therapist) asks Adam Sandler’s character (an average Joe businessman) who he is (see video below). Adam Sandler answers with thoughts about his job, his personality, and his “likes.” Jack Nicholson pushes, and says “No, those are things ABOUT you. I want to know WHO YOU ARE.” An entertaining dialogue pursues, and the movie goes on.

Who are you?

Quite the question, huh? Often times, when I get asked this question when meeting someone new, my stomach feels like someone forced Robitussin cough syrup down my throat (the worst thing I can remember tasting in my life). Who am I? A graduate student. A dog lover. A dancer. A musician. A writer. I work at a library and I’m a middle child and in my spare time I do aerial acrobatics and play piano. My favorite candy is Laffy Taffy.

All of this is true. But is it really who I am? WHAT DOES THAT QUESTION MEAN?

Part of the problem is that we aren’t defined just by our own labels. Other people have labeled me, and in ways I don’t always like. Blonde. Overly Sensitive. A Pushover. Sometimes, I believe or become those things because someone else labeled me that way. Labeling is a scary, slippery slope, and it happens every day to everyone.

In Bill Konigsberg’s new YA novel, Openly Straight, seventeen-year-old Rafe is sick of his label. He’s been “the gay boy” since he came out in eighth grade, and it has become exhausting. He knows he’s got it lucky—he lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he isn’t bullied in school, his parents fully accept his sexuality, and he has good friends. But he’s been defined by this one label for so long that he feels like his other parts have disappeared. So he takes a risk and transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England to try out a new method of self-expression—being “openly straight.”

For a while, life is fabulous. Rafe discovers his love of sports, hones his gift of creative writing, and fulfills his desire to be seen as Rafe, not Gay Rafe. But of course, there is another boy in this book—a boy that Rafe falls for, and complication ensues. Konignsberg writes his first-person narrative with a quirky grace and his dialogue with honesty and intelligence. His ability to build relationships between characters and willingness to ask thought-provoking, challenging questions to his reader is exceptional.

There’s still more to this book that I’m not including; something that is very hard to put into words. Alas, I will try.

We all want to be taken for the entire, deeply layered, multi-dimensional person that we are. I know I don’t want one of my labels to define me, but I do want the sum of my PARTS to define me. There is a type of psychotherapy called “Parts therapy,” which is based on the concept that we are complex human beings that have many different parts within us. I have a sensitive Part, but I also have a bold Part. I am a creative artist, but I am also a researcher and scholar. I don’t want to get stuck in one Part, and I don’t want to get hidden beneath a Part so no one sees any of the other Parts. Is my sexuality important? Of course. Does it define WHO I AM? No, it’s a Part. There is no Me without every Part that exists within me, and if I deny a Part of me, I’m not really Me either. Parts are fluid. They are not static; they change as we change. Openly Straight is poignant and powerful because it both asks and challenges the question: WHO ARE YOU?

Rafe would have to answer that question for himself, but I’m guessing he would say that he’s many, many things, but most of all he’s human. I would tell him that I’m the same, and that I’m a system of Parts that all work together to create the one—and only—me.

Just like you.

Maggot Moon

maggot moon

Maggot Moon

by Sally Gardner

Candlewick/Brilliance Audio, 2013

There is so much I want to say about this book. So much. But each and every element or facet or consequence I might mention would rob you of the opportunity to experience it yourself, thereby diminishing your encounter. Even saying that much feels like something of a spoiler.

So I’ll make just these few short comments:

1) Every now and again you read something that feels actually new. This is one of those stories.

2) For a good while you will feel disoriented. Stick it out. It’s worth it.

3) There are some powerful, interactive spot illustrations in the print book that contribute to the mood. The audiobook is sharp and reserved and extraordinary. Take your pick.

4) Please read this book as soon as you can, then find me so we can talk about it.