Things good for the sight.
Measurable sleepe. red roses. ffennell. Seladine Vervaine rootes X Pinpernell. Oculus Christie. To wash your eyes in faire running water, & your hands & feet often. To look on any greene or pleasant colours, or in a faire glasse.
— Isaac Newton, 1642-1726/7
School days, school daze. And for Rafe Khatchadorian, it really can be a daze. Khatchadorian is a middle school kid with an infuriating younger sister who not only loves school, she’s really good at it. Perhaps she loves her classes because she’s good at it?
Whatever. School is about rules. And Khatchadorian loves “to break rules. Especially dumb ones, like no talking in the hallways at my school.”
Rafe is about to spend the summer at Camp Wannamorra, with his cabin mates The Muskrats. The 8 a.m. to noon slot is taken up with summer school; afternoons are for crafts and swimming. Evenings and night-time appears to be specially set aside for a group of horrific bullies, the Bobcats, to harass the poor Muskrats.
Or, as camp counsellors call it, spirited hijinx. The counsellors have never seen a nasty stunt that upset them. In this book, the adults are the jerks who refuse to stop vicious bullying even when it’s right in front of them.
That’s the plot of How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, And Snake Hill. Co-author James Patterson is by now the bazillionaire behind an incredibly popular book empire. He often works with beginner authors, then uses his name recognition on the cover to ensure huge sales (Patterson has said he’s better at coming up with plots than at writing endless perfect sentences).
How I Survived is one in the Middle School series, by Patterson and Chris Tebbetts (2013, illustrated by Laura Park). The tale is rat-a-tat-tat, busy busy rapid-fire narrative with lots of funny drawings, a bit of tragedy, and a promise: This is the story of how Rafe Khatchadorian was thrown out of summer school.
(It’s also the story of how Rafe discovers that there exist books on all topics, written in all kinds of ways – including written in ways, and about topics, that interest him. Thank goodness for friends and … librarians.)
How I Survived ends as this column does, at the beginning of another school year. Rafe’s been promised a new teacher. “Supposedly, she’s the toughest nut ever. This lady won’t crack, no matter what. They say she does the cracking and I’m talking about skulls. But then again, she hasn’t met me yet, has she?”
Middle School is funny and, in many ways, charming. Unless you’re a teacher.
But after all this, Khatchadorian’s heart is in the right place.
Sixteen-year-old Light Yagami means well, too. He’s 16, the number one high school student in all of Japan in terms of exam marks, and bored out of his mind. One day, he discovers a notebook with instructions on how to kill someone — silently, instantly, and from afar. The notebook’s been lost – on purpose – by a death god (a Shinigami) named Ryuk. Ryuk is bored too, and hoping for a bit of mayhem.
He gets it. The manga series Death Note (volume 1, words by Tsugumi Ohba, pictures by Takeshi Obata, 2003, filed in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section), is the dark tale of an idealistic teen who wants to change things: “This world is a rotten mess. It really needs to be cleaned up. The question is… do I have the guts?”
The answer’s yes. Yagami is so smart that he knows that he can make things right. He begins to rub out criminals – rapists, assassins, drug lords, people who deserve to die. The authorities start to notice.
Death Note becomes increasingly gothic in feel, as Yagami forgets that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This spooky tale is part supernatural thriller, part Holmsian detective novel, part philosophical treatise. It’s wildly popular, with millions of copies in circulation around the world.
Here’s another suggested book, but this one’s for parents. It’s far more realistic, which makes it far scarier. Imperfect Birds, by Anne Lamott (2010, a nine CD set read by Susan Denaker and filed in Audio Books) follows 17-year-old Rosie Ferguson through the summer before her last year of high school, and her well-meaning parents James and Elizabeth.
The writing is refreshingly honest, even raw, hitting emotional truths that parents will connect with: “Life with a teenager,” thinks mom, “is like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out.”
Elizabeth reads her daughter’s diary and thinks she knows everything. She doesn’t.
Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic, and it is her struggle that consumes the two adults. As such, Elizabeth and James seem to want their daughter to lie to them, and are happy to accept the stories. Rosie, in turn, is an addict who feels an immense sense of power from deceiving her earnest parents.
And yet they live a happy small-town life – tennis, Bible school, and a lot of humour. But Rosie can’t keep up appearances forever.
Here’s one last back-to-school tome: Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott (2008, in Adult Fiction). An academic, Dr. Lydia Brook, returns to Cambridge for a colleague’s funeral, to discover that the dead woman wanted her to finish researching and writing her treatise on Isaac Newton.
The beloved mathematician was also a man who sought to turn lead into gold, much to the embarrassment of modern-day physicists. The hocus-pocus alchemist part of Newton has been swept under the rug in modern times.
Yet the dead woman had a fascinating thesis about his alchemy: “She wanted to challenge the myth that Newton was a lone genius, working completely in isolation.
“It was a passion to her, she hated genius myths and eureka moments in the history of science books. She talked about it a lot. She wanted to show how much, like all other scientists in the seventeenth century, Newton depended upon European secret societies like Freemasons and alchemists…. that he wasn’t in isolation and that the network to which he belonged controlled him in some ways, too.”
The request to devote a few months to the manuscript comes via the dead woman’s son, himself a famous neuroscientist and Brook’s married ex lover, who hopes to lure her back to his bed.
Mix in violent animal rights activists, a ghost-contacting medium, and some quantum mechanics (physicists who are easily annoyed should not read this book) and you have an odd little story that slowly, surely turns into a scary, supernatural tale, set in two different eras, connected by murder. And as Newton was, it appeared, obsessed with light and sight, so too our heroine tries to see through time and space.
These books are required reading for fun. Next, it will be time to get to work on the required readings for class.
– Eleanor Brown, August 29, 2014