I was lucky this weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday were postcard-worthy New England fall days. I had a delicious bowl of ramen noodles in a Japanese restaurant. And I read two books while sitting on our deck drinking chai tea, my new favorite drink. It tastes like fall!
Inspired by the National Book Award shortlist, I read Cynthia Kadohota’s new novel, The Thing About Luck. My favorite thing about this book is that it gives readers a glimpse of a life that is probably very different from their own. The novel centers on twelve-year-old Summer who lives in Kansas with her brother, parents and grandparents. Their family business is custom harvesting. I will admit that I knew nothing about this “field” before reading this book – and I grew up in Ohio! Custom harvesters are hired (like migrant workers) to drive combines around farms. At the beginning of Kadohota’s novel, Summer’s parents are called back to Japan to take care of aging relatives. Summer and her younger brother, Jaz, join their grandparents as they travel around harvesting wheat – and cooking for the crew.
The beauty of the novel rests on the rich and loving portraits of Summer, her family and their friends. Jaz, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, is an especially heartbreaking example. Jaz desperately wants to have friends, but it’s a struggle, and Summer’s concern for her brother illustrates her commitment to her family. Obaachan, her grandmother, reminds me of Rosa Hubermann in The Book Thief. She is necessarily tough on the outside, but would give her life for Summer and Jaz. And Mick, one of the harvesters, who left Ireland to get over a romance. I wanted to read more about Mick.
On Sunday, I read The Year of Billy Miller, Kevin Henkes’ new novel for young readers. This is a warm story about a second grade boy and his family. I know you may be thinking: “Okay. A book about a boy.” But, think about it for a minute. How many other really good books can you name about a young boy who lives with his family and faces all of the regular challenges of being in second grade? And in a completely honest and convincing way. Billy and his family were so real to me that I would not have been surprised to see them at the book fair last week! Here are some of the conflicts in this novel: who to write a family poem about when you can just write about one person; how to save your school project from a glitter spill; and how to stay up all night – when your eyes are really heavy. I was genuinely curious (but doubtful) if he could stay awake and guess what happened? I love that onion rings “as big as donuts” make Billy happy. I love him for worrying that he hurt his teacher’s feelings when he was staring at a friend “with the meanest expression he could manage.”
Billy is a great kid. I wanted to go to Starbucks with his mom. I wondered what his father’s art work looks like. And I could picture three-year-old Sal’s dolls. You need to introduce your young reader to this family – and maybe read it aloud so you can meet them too.
Both of these books would be terrific gifts for the upcoming holiday season. I would recommend The Thing About Luck to readers between the ages of 11 and 13. And The Year of Billy Miller is a perfect gift for a child between the ages of 6 and 9.