Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

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I’m reading Frances O’Roark Dowell’s novel, Shooting the Moon, in preparation for a discussion with seventh grade students next week.  The students are reading Dowell’s novel as a companion to their history class discussion of the late 1960s and Vietnam.

What I’ve been thinking about is that Dowell’s novel is not so much about Vietnam as it is about complexity.  While the war in Vietnam is at the book’s center, what Jamie, the main character, is beginning to understand is that nothing is as simple as it seemed when she was younger.  Jamie is twelve, and true to her age, she says right up front: “I was six months away from turning thirteen and I thought I knew everything.”  What she “knows” is that war is glorious, and if she could she would enlist herself.

The premise of the book is that Jamie’s older brother, T.J., is in Vietnam, and he send rolls of undeveloped film home to Jamie.  Following an interesting passage where Jamie (and the reader) learns how film is developed in a dark room, she begins looking at T.J.’s pictures.  Of course, Jamie’s idea of war is challenged by the realistic pictures her brother has taken.  The story unfolds as you might expect.  Slowly, Jamie understands that while war may be necessary, it is not what she had imagined.

In my view, there are two things that make this book work so effectively.  One is that Dowell herself was an “army brat.”  She understands what she’s writing about and knows the answers are not simple.  The other thing I like is that Shooting the Moon introduces “grey” in an age-appropriate and compelling way.  From my experience, 12-year-olds are just beginning to transition from black and white to shades of grey.  They are often still looking for who is “good” and who is “bad.”  If only things were that simple.  But Dowell gently leads the reader to an undertanding of more complexity.

In one way, the book reminds me of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  That book is not resolved easily either.  For many children, understanding that India’s mother is not returning home to India and her father is the first time they have encountered a book without a traditionally “happy” ending.  What India learns in DiCamillo’s book is that we can’t always have everything we wish for.  It’s the same for Jamie.  She has an idea of what her brother’s experience in Vietnam will be, but as she matures, she sees that nothing is really that simple.

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charlottes-webAs a teacher and librarian, I am often asked for book suggestions. Recently, a parent of a 6th grade student asked me for a top 10 of sorts—a list of books that most kids should read at some point.

Of course, that is a nearly impossible task. Fortunately, there are lots of different books for lots of different readers. But I did not want her to leave empty handed, so if push comes to shove, here are 10 books no child should miss:

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The Giver by Lois Lowry (this one is generally best appreciated by 12 and 13 year olds)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Holes by Louis Sachar

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White