But in the meantime, I just had the pleasure of reading two fine books. They are the sort of book that, upon finishing them, I thought, "Darn. Would that I had put these in the pile for Mother Reader's 48 Reading Challenge." For they are both books that absorb the reader, engage without engulfing, with a lightness of narrative voice that leaves the reader refreshed and ready to read more. The first is Project Mulberry, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2005, middle grade, 225 pages), the second will have to wait till tomorrow.
Project Mulberry is told by Julia, whose parents are from Korea. Her best friend is Patrick, whose parents aren't. Patrick has no clue why doing a silkworm farming project for the State Fair might not rock Julia's boat (she wants a nice American project), but she can't come right out and say it. So silkworms it is. Their quest for blue ribbons, and their immediate need for mulberry leaves, leads them to the garden of of a very pleasant old man, Mr. Dixon, and a little subplot-- "Mr. Dixon was black. My mom didn't like black people." And in the meantime Julia is learning Korean embroidery, to add interest to the silkworms by doing something with the silk, she and Patrick are becoming better friends, and she is even starting to loathe her little brother less.
As the quote above shows, Ms. Park doesn't go for subtlety here--her discussions about ethnicity are matter-of-fact, which I think serves well the reality that racism, and thoughts about race that aren't racist, are everyday things that shouldn't be taboo topics. And in an interesting authorial choice that I very much enjoyed, Julia is so matter-of-fact about her identity (as a fictional character) that she talks to the author:
Me [Julia]: Do you want my opinion? I am not happy with the way things are going here. I hate the project idea [...]I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these little conversations. They make the book very friendly, and since the author is just as unreal to me, the reader, as the characters are, it didn't force my brain to switch modes of being.
Ms. Park: Actually, no--I don't want your opinion. In fact, I have to admit, this is weird for me. I've written other books, and only once has a character ever talked to me. You talk to me all the time, and I'm finding that hard to get used to.
Other things I liked:
--learning about silkworms and Korean embroidery. I do so like thick description of real activities.
--references to other books I like. Mr. Dixon reminds Julia and Patrick of Mr. Titus, from Then There Were Five, by Elizabeth Enright (I love that book).
--and I have to like a book where the characters carefully carry their silkworm poop back to feed the tree that fed them (even though they are motivated by their desire for a Better Project). (The gentle environmentalism of the book also makes it a good one for an Earth Day review, which gives me a pleasant feeling of accomplishment).