Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

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“I look at the dark closing in, sky getting more and more purple, and I’m thinking how nothing is as simply as you guess – not right or wrong, not Judd Travers, not even me or this dog I got here. But the good part is I saved Shiloh and opened my eyes some. Now that ain’t bad for eleven” (Naylor, 1991, p. 144).

This was such an incredibly sweet little story! Like Holes, Shiloh is a story I had heard of, but had never bothered to read as a child. Looking back on it, I’m curious as to why I never came across this book, as I’ve always loved animals and feel-good stories about stopping animal cruelty (one of my favorite childhood books is Hoot by Carl Hiaasen). This book would’ve been right up my alley when I was younger. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I chose to read it now, as Shiloh is a heart-warming story about a boy and his love for a dog.

The story focuses on eleven-year-old Marty Preston, a young boy with a big heart. While walking in the woods one day, he comes across what appears to be a timid and maltreated beagle. Instantly smitten, Marty lets the dog follow him home, where his parents insist that the dog must belong to someone nearby. It doesn’t take long for the family to speculate that the dog belongs to their neighbor Judd Travers, a thirty year old hunter known for mistreating his hunting dogs. Sure enough, the dog turns out to be Judd’s newest hunting dog, who he has beaten and starved for constantly running away from hunts. Angered and worried about his new-found friend, Marty decides to hide the dog away on his family’s property when he escapes once again. What follows is a story about love, friendship, honesty, and how doing the right thing isn’t always as simple as one might think.

What struck me most about Shiloh is that, despite its simplicity, it is able to convey a very important message in only 144 pages. The overall message to this story (at least from what I gathered) is that its not always easy to decide what the right course of action is, even if we truly believe we’re doing the right thing. From the very beginning, Marty struggles to decide which is worse: knowingly allowing a dog to be mistreated, or lying to the dog’s legal owner while hiding him in the woods. While most children learn fairly early on that stealing is wrong, they also learn that it’s important to treat animals with respect and kindness. Frequently, it seems as if simple truths such as these can become muddied, making it hard to tell the difference between wrong and right. While most would argue that Marty’s heart is in the right place, his actions lead him to weave a tangled web of lies for those around him, as one lie leads right into the next. Throughout the book, Marty is constantly reassuring himself that what he is doing is okay because he’s doing it to save an innocent animal, a conclusion that many of us would come to if we’d been put in the same position.

As this book proves, however, the answers are not always black and white. Judd Travers may not be the nicest human on earth, but we learn throughout the story that he was neglected and abused himself as a child, partially causing him to lash out at animals and other people as he grew older. In the end, though Judd toys with the idea of going back on the bargain he’s struck with Marty, he allows the boy to keep the dog he’s worked so hard for, showing that even the nastiest humans can have some redeeming qualities. What I took most out of this story, though, was how the love between a person and his or her pet can really shape his or her identity. I was always told, growing up, that getting a pet was a huge responsibility, and that taking care of an animal was a big commitment. Marty demonstrates this by going hungry on many occasions in order to bring leftover food to Shiloh, as well as working twenty hours doing hard labor for Judd in order to keep him. This book, without preaching to children, demonstrates that even without these sacrifices, taking care of an animal is no small task.

I believe this book has the potential to teach children how to be compassionate towards animals, and to recognize that some rules are meant to be broken if it’s being done for the right reasons. In the end, Marty’s sacrifices lead to a happy ending for both him and his dog, but the book warns that his decisions might have consequences for others (such as when he agrees to keep Judd’s illegal hunting a secret in order to keep Shiloh). This book is a short, easy read with a wonderful message, and I would highly recommend it to children who are animal lovers or reluctant readers; the plot and language are simple and easy to follow along, and the story can be used to prompt a discussion about compassion for animals and the difference between right and wrong (which is not always as clear as we would like it to be). This book is proof that not every Newbery Award winner has to be profound; sometimes the best stories are the most simple and easy to understand.

Reference:

Naylor, P. R. (1991). Shiloh. New York, NY: Atheneum.

Holes by Louis Sachar

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“A lot of people don’t believe in curses. A lot of people don’t believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn’t make a difference whether you believe in it or not” (Sachar, 1998, p. 41).

You’ll probably be shocked to learn this, but I’d actually never read Holes before picking it up this week. I remember seeing (and loving) the movie adaptation when it came out, but I’d never bothered to sit down and read the book… Until now. Generally, I prefer to read a book before I see the movie (so as not to taint my reading experience), but when this movie came out, I hadn’t established that rule for myself just yet. After reading the book, however, I’m very glad I did, as the movie adaptation is a rare example of a film that follows the source material almost exactly. That being said, the book is absolutely wonderful, and completely deserving of its Newbery Medal.

By now, I’m sure everyone knows the premise of this particular book, but I’ll share it here in case you either need a refresher or have waited to read it like me. Holes follows the story of a boy named Stanley Yelnats, whose family has been plagued for decades by extremely bad luck. Supposedly, his great-great grandfather was cursed by a one-legged gypsy after stealing one of her pigs, leaving his descendants with never-ending misfortune. Because of this, Stanley isn’t surprised when he is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of sneakers (which, according to him, fell out of the sky and into his hands). Given the choice between jail time and a camp known as Camp Green Lake, Stanley chooses camp… Only to discover that the “camp” is  fate much worse than imprisonment. Once there, Stanley learns that his only purpose is to dig one hole (five feet deep and five feet across in every direction) every single day. While the Warden and counselors insist this is only to “build character,” Stanley and his new-found friends soon discover a mystery of buried treasure that is a century old.

One of my favorite things about this book was it’s ability to portray racism and race relations in a very real and accessible way. Because this is children’s literature, and not young adult or adult literature, the topic needs to be handled more sensitively than it would be in the latter two formats. And, much like Jacqueline Woodson’s Stella By Starlight, Holes does not shy away from the topic of race. While it is not a prominent theme in the book, there is an element of historical fiction in the snippets of Kate Barlow’s past. In these flashbacks, an innocent African American man is killed simply for kissing a white woman, while there are no consequences for the white men who attempt to force themselves on her throughout the novel. This historical observation, though a small part of the book, is still very relevant in today’s society, where a white man can get away with sexual assault while a black man will spend years in jail for non-violent offenses. This book is one of many that can hopefully start a dialogue with children about racial issues in a safe and approachable way. Perhaps the best quote on this issue from the novel comes on page 84, when Stanley is reflecting on the racial dynamic of the camp: “On the lake they were all the same reddish brown color – the color of dirt” (Sachar, 1998). In this setting, all of the boys in the camp are on equal ground; no one race is elevated above another. Though the boys occasionally fight with and tease one another, in the end they are a united force of friends, simply trying to get through the same miserable situation intact. This is a simple, yet excellent message for a children’s book to convey, and I think it’s part of the reason it’s so well-loved.

This isn’t the only reason, of course. Holes is, to put it simply, just an immensely entertaining book. It has everything a reluctant reader might want: mystery, adventure, buried treasure, gypsies, curses, intrigue, friendship, cool inventions, bandits, and a band of lovable and eclectic characters to get to know. Even if this book had no deep messages about race, friendship, family, and self-esteem (which it absolutely does), I think this book would succeed simply because it’s so entertaining. It’s just a fun, easy book to read, and one that I could see both girls and boys enjoying due to the universal nature of the story. The main characters might be boys, but the lessons learned and friendships formed are relatable to any gender. It also has a movie tie-in, making it an easy book to teach and discuss in multiple formats. It’s just a delightful little book, and one that I wish I’d read when I was younger. I’m glad that I finally sat down and gave it a chance. If you like the movie, you will most definitely enjoy the book!

Reference:

Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

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“Everyone has a story, but as I hear more I find it hard to relate. I lied when I said I was born in the wrong body. I don’t always like my body or that I have love handles. I don’t always like that as a woman I have fewer options than men, even men that aren’t as smart as I am. But I never feel like my body is a trap. If anything, I feel like my love is a trap” (Farizan, 2014, p. 143).

This was such a heartbreaking story to read, especially because it rings with so much honesty and truth. I’ve always known that the LGBT community faces unspeakable discrimination in other parts of the world, but I’d never stopped much to really think about how hard things must be for under-represented groups in other countries. I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in our own American bubble, forgetting about the hardships that women and minorities (such as the LGBT community) face in other cultures.For all of our grievances in the United States, I do think it’s important to remember that, all things considered, we live a very privileged lifestyle when compared to other cultures. Sprinkled throughout this novel are tragic instances of discrimination, reflective of a culture that can, at times, be both beautiful and cruel.

The story focuses on seventeen year old Sahar, who is hopelessly in love with her best friend Nasrin. There are, unfortunately, many problems with this, however: Nasrin and Sahar are both girls, and they live in a society where being gay is not only seen as a sin, but is also completely illegal. For years, the two have been forced to hide their relationship from the world, but have remained relatively content keeping their love a secret. This changes when Nasrin’s parents force her into an engagement with a wealthy doctor against her will. Because adultery and homosexuality are crimes punishable by death in their country, Nasrin and Sahar know that their days together are coming to an abrupt end. When Sahar meets her cousin’s transgender friend Parveen, however, she forms an idea. While being gay is illegal and sinful in her country, being transgender is viewed as a legitimate illness that can be treated for free by the government. Sahar is then faced with an impossible choice: to give up the girl she loves forever, or to become a man and sacrifice her true self. It’s an impossible, tragic dilemma, and one that sheds light on a reality for many members of the LGBT community in Iran.

Let me begin this review with a disclaimer. I am American with German heritage, and therefore cannot claim to know the slightest thing about Iranian culture, though I have always been curious. Therefore, my views are necessarily going to be skewed due to my own personal experiences. My initial reaction to this story, as with all stories that showcase injustice, was complete and utter heartbreak. Sahar and Nasrin may be fictional characters, but their dilemma is one that many real people have faced. I’m not under any false assumption that our country is perfect when it comes to the LGBT community (or any minority community, for that matter); in fact, we have a very long way to go before normalized discrimination is a thing of the past. That being said, the fact that it is not illegal to be gay in this country is a wonderful thing, as it lets members of the LGBT community love openly without fearing for their lives. I can’t imagine facing the choices that Sahar and Nasrin must deal with in this novel, especially not at age seventeen or eighteen. I’m twenty-three now, and would have a hard time choosing between a life of safety and a life of freedom with the person I love; it’s a choice that nobody should ever have to make.

Oddly enough, however, there were parts of the Iranian culture that seemed almost more progressive than our own. In America, I feel as though being gay is accepted infinitely more than being transgender. In the culture presented in the novel, however, being transgender (or “transsexual,” as the novel refers to it) is seen as an illness that can be treated at no cost to the individual. While this is wonderful for those looking to have the reassignment surgery, I believe it is also legal and accepted for the wrong reasons. Calling transgenderism an “illness” bothers me a bit, as it implies (at least to me) that you are sick if you believe you were born in the wrong body. Of course, I don’t have a better term for it, but I did find it interesting that the Iranian culture views it with slightly more of an open mind than we do (though there are still those who do not accept transgender individuals), especially since being gay is considered a cardinal sin in Iranian society.

It was also interesting to see the characters in the book comment on this; sometimes, they admire and envy Western society, but they also pity us at times. There is a point in the novel where one of the characters laments that Americans cannot have the reassignment surgery done for free, and are thankful to be able to get it done at no cost to them. At the same time, many of the characters comment upon the “luxury of the West,” sometimes wishing they too could choose to be whatever and whoever they want to be without consequence (p. 195). There is also a moment in which Nasrin is almost arrested for showing her elbows, leading to a tense moment in which neither her nor Sahar are sure if they will make it out safely. Such things would never happen in the United States, though we do live in a world where rape victims can be blamed for what they wore or how intoxicated they were at the time. This novel presents the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect culture, and that we all tend to see the grass as being greener on the other side at times.

As I said before, I (like many others in America) feel as though I have been sheltered from the experiences of other cultures, and while I cannot attest to the accuracy of this portrayal of Iranian culture, this novel did help to open my mind to what daily life might be like in other countries. It was eye-opening to be able to step into the shoes of a young woman who is only a few years younger than myself, but who lives in a culture that is vastly different from my own. In truth, not everything in Sahar’s society was negative, as most Western media will have us believe. There were several kind, open-minded, sympathetic characters in the novel, including a police officer who helps to protect Sahar’s gay cousin Ali (throughout most of the novel, at least). Religion was actually portrayed in an extremely realistic manner, as the novel showed glimpses of characters who were both extremely devout, and characters who did not actively practice religion; not everyone is painted with the same stereotypical brush. The novel also showcases an Iranian wedding ceremony, ripe with tradition and beautiful symbolism. Unfortunately, there also appears to be a great deal of sexism and prejudice against those who are different, which I suppose exists in every culture (including our own). I applaud Farizan’s ability to highlight this unique culture without sugar-coating some of the injustices faced by those within it; she gives a very realistic portrayal of a society that not many Westerners (myself included) have taken the time to understand.

Overall, I found it to be extremely intriguing and thought-provoking to leave my world behind and step into another, if only for a short period of time. I have lived in America my entire life, and have never thought to venture out and experience other cultures; this novel allowed me to do so in a safe and attainable way. As an ally to the LGBT community, this novel also opened my eyes to the massive amount of work that still needs to be done worldwide to help normalize and decriminalize the LGBT community. It is my sincere belief that nobody should ever be punished or persecuted because of who they love, and I long to see a world in which being gay is viewed as being no different than having brown hair or blue eyes; it’s just one of many traits that can describe a human being. I believe this novel is very deserving of its Lambda award, as it reminds us all that equality is worth fighting for, if only so that our children never have to make the impossible choices that the characters in this story (and countless real people all over the world) have had to make. If you’re in the market for a new and unique experience, I invite you to step outside of your comfort zone and give this book a try; I promise you it’s worth the read!

Reference:

Farizan, S. (2014). If You Could Be Mine. New York, NY: Algonquin Young Readers.