Sunday, January 29, 2012

YA Book Review- My Father's Summers: A Daughter's Memoir

Technology brings authors to my classroom via Skype.  For over the past year I've participated in six different chats with YA author Kathi Appelt--one such chat was done for a group of teachers learning how to use Skype to bring a mentor into the classroom.  Having read both of Appelt's most recent YA novels (The Underneath and Keeper) I've developed an internal radar for her name and I see it places where I otherwise would have missed it.

This summer I stumbled across a reference and an excerpt to a memoir about her father--so I wrote her an email and asked her about it.  True to her generous nature, Appelt immediately mailed me a copy and included a sweet, inspiring message in the front: "Write your own story!"

Written in prose poetry and covering the formative years from middle school through high school, Appelt builds the memoir around her absent father--and while the story tackles an adolescent going through divorce, it is also a positive affirmation.  Strength and family and love resonate throughout the text.

For all intents and purposes, Appelt and her two younger sisters were raised by a single mother before any of them realized she really was a single mother.

Struck most by Appelt's honesty, I enjoyed each vignette for its bravery and sense of acceptance.  She tells the story from the familiar point of view of a child in a one-parent home.  She nails that sense of loyalty a child feels towards one parent or the other, the questions that children internalize, the digging for answers, and the undeniable all-seeing eye of a child...she writes some enormous, beautiful, moments that retain the raw emotion and unfiltered truth of youth:
There wasn't a wedding.  My father said they simply went to the courthouse and got married by the justice of the peace.  Said Choice went with them because they needed a witness.  I saw a witness too.  Saw the cat give birth to four kittens.  Saw my cousin do a flip off the high dive.  Saw a storm roll in at the beach, watched the sky turn from blue to gray so that soon I couldn't tell where the rain ended and the see began.  Saw my mother double over in the middle of the driveway, saw her reach for the missing car, saw her tears slide down her face.  I was a witness too.
Appelt's poetic and emotional vignettes are direct and vibrant.

This is a great book for your middle school classroom library.  Also, it is one where you should be able to find examples of mentor texts for lessons or writing workshops.  A passage that I'd like to use as a mentor text is called "Whispers":
There were whispers coming from my mother, pieces of information not fully formed, not thoroughly bound by the edges of whole words, partial bits of language caught sometimes between the sofa cushions, under the coffee table, above the cabinets, lying here and there.  I'd hear them whenever the screen door slammed each time we walked through, floating just beneath my touch, audible but not.  It's the way of whispers to slip under the mat at the kitchen sink and hide behind the spices in the cupboard.  There but not there.  Heard but not quite.  There were whispers afoot, coming from my mother.

As a final thought I want to add that I really found myself attached to the tenacity with which Appelt defends her mother.  As much a study in divorce and her father's choices, the book artfully brings to life some of the emotion of a household managed by a single mom.  I was raised by a single mom and found in Appelt's writing the first real expression of the resilience of single mothers...the wounds...the tender frailty of the experience...other than things I've written for myself, it is all there.

Just a lovely lovely book by Kathi Appelt.

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