It all started when one of my grandsons was beginning to read “chapter books,” a category of literature I hadn’t known by that name before then. He didn’t start with The Boxcar Children as my children did; what got him excited was a series about talking cats. I wanted to be able to chat with him about his reading so I got my hands on a copy of Warriors, a series by Erin Hunter. I did get pulled in to the politics and magic of wild cat clans made up of individuals with names like Ravenpaw and Bluestar, clans that fight territorial wars and look down on “kittypets,” their derogatory name for tame kitties. Hunter has written 19 books in this series so far, but perhaps Grandson B. grew out of them; he hasn’t gotten around to reading the last story.
Another grandson, in 2nd grade, recommended the Magic Tree House Mysteries by Mary Pope Osborne. 28 have been published at this writing, and he’s keeping up. I let him read several chapters out loud to me a year ago, and then I came home and read one of the series myself. Through time and earth travel that happens when they are in their tree house, the two children enter into historical events great and small all over the globe, in many different eras and cultures. The format is a vehicle for learning lots of social studies and even science trivia.
My most recent exploration of children’s literature came as a result of blogger contacts, where I heard about the books by Frances O’Roark Dowell. The two I’ve seen so far use a conversational first-person style that reminds me of The Sugar Creek Gang books of yore. In Chicken Boy the main character is a 7th-grader from a decidedly dysfunctional family; he spends the latter part of the book in a foster home, even though the reader has become sympathetic to the good hearts and potential of the family members who are neglecting Chicken Boy.
I liked the grandmother, and Boy’s school friend who gets him involved in a science project to prove that chickens have souls. A bit of philosophy hooks me in, especially when added to the fact that Boy gets several chickens to raise at Grandma’s. Grandma and Friend have a discussion on this question of souls, and Grandma concludes, “I’d believe a tree had a soul before I believed a chicken had one.”
Overall Chicken Boy is full of hope. Our 7th-grader gets over some of the major obstacles of entering junior high without a supporting family, by having kind friends and teachers and extended family. Even before Social Services enters the picture, you get the feeling he might make use of limited resources and succeed in life. Instead, the foster family provides a refreshing and not unrealistic option in his case, and it is hopeful as well. At the end of the book we don’t know if and when the original family will come together again.
Why do some children read Warriors and some books about foster children? It is heartening to think that borderline neglected children are finding Chicken Boy in the school library and taking it home to read. It could give them ideas for making the most of adversity, and ease some anxiety about the future. If just one child is uplifted by this book, the author will have accomplished a great blessing.