The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini

This will not be a standard post, but please bear with me.

Like most avid readers, I use books to escape from the pressures of everyday life. Something happened a couple of days ago, though, that even books can’t really help me with. (Please allow me just this little bit to get this out, and I’ll get to my latest read.) On Sunday morning, my uncle was killed in a tragic accident. Anyone who knew my wonderful uncle knew that he was larger than life, so the news of his death was a shock to everyone. I still don’t fully believe it. I’m waiting on him to walk through the door with his huge smile and a hug for everyone he encounters. Everyone adored him, and none of us can really process why this happened. Right now, the platitudes that people offer during times like these mean absolutely nothing to me (or the rest of the family, I imagine). We simply want David back.

I haven’t mentioned this to anyone except my mother, but my uncle’s passing has hit me very hard. You see, Sunday wasn’t just another day for me. It was my birthday. For the rest of my life, I’ll associate that day with the loss of one of the men I loved most in the world. I’m sure the rest of my family will feel the same. My birthday is no longer something to celebrate. That date is something to mourn. I don’t even know how to reconcile that in my own mind, and I know my uncle would fuss about this, but I just can’t help it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get past my feelings about this, but it is not this day.

I do ask everyone to keep my family in your thoughts and prayers. We’ll need all the help we can get to make it through this tragedy.

I did try to escape through a book during the past couple of days. I put away the book I was reading (which dealt with way too much death), and I began reading a somewhat light-hearted novel that I thought would lift my spirits just a little. That book was The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini by Peter Johnson. (I’ll be calling this book Houdini from this point forward. That title is a little long to keep typing.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I read this book because one of the teachers at my school was concerned about some swearing in it that a third grader had brought to her attention. Before I made any decisions on whether to keep or remove the book from my school library, I knew I had to read it, so I figured now was as good as any time. Yes, there is a little swearing (the “d” word a couple of times), but, in my opinion, it was not gratuitous, and it fit the character’s situation. (Not every kid is raised in a wholesome, religious, stable, conservative family.) The main character also mentions that a good, publishable kid’s novel (which he’s trying to write) shouldn’t contain any explicit sex. (He’s right, by the way.) Some kids and parents might simply see the phrase “explicit sex” when browsing through this book and decide to throw a conniption fit. I was a little concerned as well…until I actually read the book.

Houdini tells the tale of a thirteen-year-old, nicknamed Houdini as the title suggests, who has decided to write a novel about his life after hearing an author speak at his school. He explores what makes a good kids’ novel and proceeds to write the happenings of his rather eventful life. He talks about his family’s struggles with making ends meet, his brother’s deployment to Iraq (and what happens when he eventually returns), dealing with the neighborhood bully, and his relationships with his friends and neighbors. At the end, even Houdini is surprised at how writing (and noticing) everything around him changes not only him but his family and friends as well. He realizes that nearly everything is interconnected and that, if he takes the time to really get to know someone, they may just surprise him.

Even in this dark time in my own life, Houdini put a smile on my face. This was a good book that I think a lot of readers, particularly boys, will relate to. After reading it, I will say that this is not a book I would recommend to a third grader. I think this book is okay for readers in fifth grade on up. Middle grade readers will enjoy it.

Here’s the big question: am I going to remove Houdini from my school library? No. I think it does have a place in the elementary library, but I do believe library professionals–including myself–should know their readers and be mindful of which readers are mature enough to handle a book like this one. (Also be aware of which parents or teachers will have a problem with a bit of swearing or frank talk between a group of thirteen-year-old boys.) As I’m sure everyone knows, maturity levels vary greatly between a group of kids (or adults). What one reader may find offensive or scandalous, another will view as commonplace or even funny. As always, keep this in mind when recommending any book to a reader, no matter what his/her age may be.

Mad Love

Even though I think Valentine’s Day is a stupid non-holiday (yes, I’m single), I found myself reading a book with a big ol’ heart on it yesterday.  Purely coincidence, I assure you.  When I first started reading Mad Love by Suzanne Selfors, I was expecting standard chick-lit fare.  I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the depth of the main character, Alice, and how she approached issues that no teenager should have to deal with.  It also didn’t hurt that Mad Love threw in some mythology and supernatural goings-on.  That’s always fun.

Alice Amorous is the daughter of world-famous romance novelist Belinda Amorous. People probably think that being the Queen of Romance’s daughter is glamorous and full of flowers, hearts, and candy…but they couldn’t be more wrong. Alice is doing her best to hide the horrible truth from everyone. Her mother is battling a mental illness in a private psychiatric hospital, and she hasn’t written a word in three years. 

It’s up to Alice to make sure the bills get paid, books get autographed (or forged, as the case may be), and eager fans and publishers are kept at bay.  But it’s getting harder and harder to cope…especially when her mom’s publisher wants a completed manuscript or a return of the $100,000 advance for the next book, and the hospital needs payment for Belinda’s care and treatment.  Alice doesn’t have the money needed, and she doesn’t know how she’ll get it…until she gets the bright idea to write a romance novel herself…in her mother’s name, of course.  There are a few problems though:  1.  She’s not a writer.  2.  She’s never even been in love (and how can you write about romance if you’ve never experienced it?).  3.  The publisher needs the novel by the end of the summer, so she’s got about a month to come up with something.  What’s a girl to do?  Well, someone comes along who may just have the answer to all of Alice’s problems…

When Alice first meets Errol, she thinks he’s crazy.  Also, he reeks of clam juice.  After talking to him for a bit, she still thinks he’s crazy, but she’s willing to hear him out if it will ultimately help her mother.  See, Errol thinks he’s Eros, better known as Cupid, and he wants Alice to write the real story of Cupid and Psyche, the story that the gods wanted hushed up.  Alice has quite enough crazy in her life, but she agrees to help Errol–even though he’s wrecking her relationship with Tony, the new guy in town.  As Alice works on the book that she’s sure will fix everything, she learns a little about what a love story truly is and the power of love in all its forms.

Will Alice be able to tell Errol’s story before it’s too late?  Will it be enough to keep her mother’s illness a secret?  Is this guy really Cupid?  Will her mother ever get better?  And will Alice finally get her own love story with Tony?  Answer these questions and many more when you read Mad Love by Suzanne Selfors.

Mad Love is a quick, easy read that will definitely appeal to tween and teen girls.  (It will be a hard sell for most male readers.)  Despite the cover, this is an emotional read that highlights what children of depressed parents go through.  It also gives a new look at a story you might have encountered before.  Many mythology enthusiasts–like myself–know the story of Cupid and Psyche, but Mad Love presents it in a whole new way…without the “happy ending” that we’ve grown accustomed to.  Author Suzanne Selfors does a great job of showing readers how truly powerful love can be, whether it’s the love between parents and children, friends, romantic interests, or even total strangers.  Mad Love is a wonderful, heart-wrenching book that will leave you examining the love in your own life.  I know it did for me.

For more information about Suzanne Selfors and her books, visit http://www.suzanneselfors.com/index_flash.php.  (I’ve only read one of her other books, Saving Juliet, but it, too, was great, so I’ll probably check out a few more!)