At the end of another year, it’s pleasant to gather the highlights of the seasons past and affectionately replay them. Each of these recommended books presents characters whose day or year unfolds in a most unexpected way.
In Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, the main character, Dellarobia, was on her way to college, rare for the Appalachian town where she was born, when she became pregnant. Now she is dissatisfied with her life. She has an overbearing mother-in-law, a loving but unambitious husband, and a constant struggle to keep her family above the poverty line.
In an unusually rainy winter that threatens to wash away their farm, the annual migration of monarch butterflies is somehow redirected to their mountainside.
Dellarobia and the townspeople variously interpret the stunning appearance of these frail travelers as a divine message, a great money-making opportunity or as ample reason to delay the cutting down of the forest on the mountain.
Once word of the butterflies spreads via social media, a research team led by Dr. Ovid Byron arrives to study the phenomenon and try to discern what it might mean for the species’ survival. Working with him awakens Dellarobia’s intellectual curiosity and presents her with a difficult choice between her personal growth and her responsibility to her family. ($16.99; Random House, 2012)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is told through a collection of e-mail messages, official documents and secret correspondence written by a soon-to-graduate middle-school girl in Seattle.
The Bernadette of the title is a brilliant architect and the avowed enemy of the other mothers in her daughter’s school community. In her characterization the author wields a hilarious weapon of satire against the complacent culture of suburbia.
The third locus of the dysfunctional family is Dad, who works for Microsoft. When he promises his daughter that she can have anything she wants if she earns straight As, she chooses a trip to Antarctica.
The story turns into a mystery when her mother goes missing in Antarctica. The devastated father’s compassionate single-parenting style is heartwarming as he deals with not only the typical teen angst, but his brilliant daughter’s conviction that her mother is not dead. ($14.99; Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin is appropriate for teen through adult readers. ($26; Delacorte Press, 2013)
It is told from the point of view of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. The story spans her life from when she meets him in Mexico City, where her father is ambassador, to Lindbergh’s death.
Anne is depicted as very unsure of herself, and overwhelmed by Charles’ fame and the attendant media frenzy. He dominates their life together until she finds her own voice as an author and aviatrix.
Included in the narrative is the tragic kidnapping and death of their son. The author finely details the horror and helplessness that the Lindberghs endured, the strain that it put on their marriage and the sort of peace they were able to salvage in the aftermath.
Divergent by Veronica Roth also is appropriate for teen through adult readers. ($17.99; Katherine Tegen Books, 2011)
Sixteen-year-old Beatrice is facing the ritual in which she will choose her future identity. She was born and raised in a family belonging to the Abnegation faction in post-apocalyptic Chicago.
The city lives in relative peace because five factions live their lives separately from each other. Each faction is defined by its lifestyle. The Abnegations wear only gray, unfashionable clothing and strive for selflessness in all things.
Beatrice first undergoes a test designed to reveal the teenager’s aptitude for the various factions. Her test results are inconclusive, however, and she is warned that knowledge of her "divergent" tendencies can be extremely dangerous and must be kept secret.
Once Beatrice chooses the Dauntless faction, her life becomes a series of brutal physical training sessions where she is instructed and tested in the survival and fighting skills demanded of members of this faction. To fail the initiation means to be "factionless," basically turned out onto the street to scavenge and beg for as long as she lives.
During training Tris (the new name she chooses for herself) copes with homesickness, bullying and mistrust but also learns the hidden strengths she has never tapped. And she finds love.
Emil and the Detectives is a classic children’s chapter book that’s still popular because its hero is a clever, good boy in a difficult situation. And an unlikely army of fourth-graders helps him keep his promise to his mother.
Written originally in German by Erich Kastner, it’s available in a number of reprinted editions, one illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Emil has been entrusted to deliver his mother’s hard-earned money to his grandmother. He embarks on the train trip with a nervous anxiety about the safety of the money pinned inside his jacket. When a mysterious passenger disappears along with Emil’s money, the chase is on.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead ($16.99; Roaring Brook Press, 2010) is a delightful storybook for preschool through first grade. Erin Stead’s illustrations (which earned a Caldecott Medal) are beautifully detailed drawings of elderly Amos and his zoo animal friends.
The story glows with the simple affection the friends share, and when Amos has to stay in bed one day, the animals lovingly repay his many kindnesses to them.
Another Caldecott winner is the breathtaking The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkey ($16.99; Little, Brown and Company, 2009). The only words in this adaptation of an Aesop fable are the noises of the jungle and one human intrusion.
The tale of kindness repaid unfolds in lush watercolor and pencil renderings of the African serengeti. The fierce lion has delightful facial expressions, and the tiny mouse is especially eloquent in the sequence showing her responding to the king of beasts’ cry for help.
I wish you a Happy New Year and many reading adventures.
Palma is an adjunct associate professor of English at Monroe Community College in Rochester. She has a master of science degree in education from Nazareth College and master of arts in theology from St. Bernard’s Institute.