Sunday, January 15, 2017

Third Page: A Crime in the Neighborhood

In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighborhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn. Occasionally somebody's Schwinn bicycle was stolen, or a dog was hit by a car that kept on going. Once in a while we heard about a shoplifter at the Spring Hill Mall, six blocks away. But otherwise both the mall and the neighborhood always struck everyone as the most ordinary of places.

Then one summer evening around five-thirty, just as business at the mall had finished for the day, a florist named Miss Evelyn Crespo carried a box of orchid corsages out to her car for a wedding that night. She had parked far back behind the mall in a row of spaces reserved for employees, below a two-acre wooded rise. That time of day, the mall's triangular shadow cut upward across the hill like a wedge. As Miss Crespe slid...


Winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1999, Suzanne Berne's A Crime in the Neighborhood, is the narrator's look back on 1972 as she tries to lay to rest the summer when she was nine, her family was going to pieces, and the neighborhood was reeling from the murder of a local 12-year-old boy.

What could have been a fairly ordinary mystery-tinted piece of fiction is elevated, for me, by the unique perspective that the narrator provides. As a reader, I was continually struck by the dual perspective of, on one hand, the narrator as a child looking at and making sense of the world around her and, on the other, the adult narrator's understanding of that juvenile filter through which she once saw.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Second Page: I Am the Cheese

I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don't always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike -- the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It's cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake sliterhing up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling.

This is Mechanic Street in Monument, and to my right, high above on a hill, there's a hospital and I glance up at the place and I think of my father in Rutterburg, Vermont, and my pedaling accelerates. It's ten o'clock in the morning and it is October, not a Thomas Wolfe October of burning leaves and ghost winds but a rotten October, dreary, cold, and damp with little sun and no warmth at all. Nobody reads Thomas Wolfe anymore, I guess, except my father and me. I did a book report on
The Web and the Rock and...


Robert Cormier may be best known for his acclaimed (and often-challenged) book for teenagers The Chocolate War. This book, I Am the Cheese, was probably the third book of his that I read. Part character study, part mystery, it's the story of a boy riding a bike on a search for his father and answers about his past. After I first read it, I left it on a shelf at work. Our caretaker admitted a few days later that she'd seen it there, picked it up, and read a huge chunk of it right then and there. She'd finished it within a day or two.

In 1997, three years before Cormier's death, I Am the Cheese received the Phoenix Award. This award, presented by the Children's Literature Association, is given to a book published 20 years previously which was "overlooked" for major awards at the time of its release. (Quite an interesting concept for an award, I must say, and one I quite like.)

I'm due for a re-read.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

First Page: Bridge to Terabithia

Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity -- Good. His dad had the pickup going. He could get up now. Jess slid out of bed and into his overalls. He didn't worry about a shirt because once he began running he would be hot as popping grease even if the morning air was chill, or shoes because the bttoms of his feet were by now as tough as his worn-out sneakers.

"Where you going, Jess?" May Belle lifted herself up sleepily from the double bed where she and Joyce Ann slept.

"Sh." He warned. The walls were thin. Momma would be mad as flies in a fruit jar if they woke her up this time of day.
He patted May Belle's hair and yanked the twisted sheet up to her small chin. "Just over the cow field," he whispered. May Belle smiled and snuggled down under the sheet.

"Gonna run?"



Most friends will be unsurprised that Katherine Paterson's Newbery Medal-EarningBridge to Terabithia is the first page. As my widely pronounced Favourite Book of All Time, I've been known to keep gift-giving copies on-hand to pass out at the drop of a hat. Why? Apart from being a darned good book, it was also the book that changed the way I looked at books when I first read it many, many moons ago as a child.

Already a rather rabid reader -- those were the days of "When you finish your work, read", so I spent a lot of my day reading and waiting for the next lesson at school -- but when I read Bridge something new clicked. Books didn't just have to be entertaining. They could make you care about characters. You could feel something deeper than amusement as you flipped the pages. They could make themselves personal.

I can't tell you how many times I've read Bridge to Terabithia, both on my own and with kids. A few years ago, a wonderful friend gave for Christmas a copy which she'd sent to Katherine Paterson to be personalized and signed. Thanks, Jackie!

In the years since I read Bridge, I've come to appreciate Paterson the person more and more.  Through her books, interviews, speeches, and even social media content, she has frequently given me reason to pause and contemplate something or to be reminded of a deceptively simple truth.  She is undoubtedly someone I'd love to sit down with over tea.

For more information about Katherine Paterson and her books, visit her official website here.

2017: Another Kick at the Can

I started this almost a decade ago and, life being what it is, I allowed it to fall by the wayside about half-way through the project.  I've decided that it's time to revive it.  Some of the posts will be revivals and refreshed versions of those that survive from the original project, others will be new making up, I hope, the full 52 pages.  It's the 21st Century.  Reading is awesome.