Thursday, July 06, 2017

Review: Flying Lessons and Other Stories

A few weeks back, at around 2am, I was done programming but too wired (if you'll pardon the pun) to fall asleep. So I did what I often do and opened up Overdrive, rented an audio book and set it to play for 30 minutes while I dozed. I've done this in the past, and I usually try not over-think what book I listen to. I grab the first one that looks interesting, and it's usually good enough.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I randomly picked Flying Lessons and Other Stories and fairly quickly discovered that I had stumbled on a gem. As is my usual practice, I skipped listening to the introduction, and just jumped into the book.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I was listening to a collection of short stories. After more listening, I realized that they were all targeted to kids. And finally, in the credits of the book, I learned that this book was published in partnership with WeNeedDiverseBooks.com. Sure enough, all the stories involved kids who would be defined as some sort of minority (be it based on skin color, ability or something else).

One of my favorite joys is starting a random book and slowly having the story come into focus. With this collection of short stories, I got to experience that effect over and over again. And in all but one story, I found myself truly loving the tale. At the end of each story I kept thinking, man, how did the author do that? I felt totally invested and connected to these characters, and yet, these were all short stories. Whatever devices the authors used to give the illusion of a sweeping story arc worked well.

Amazon reports that this book is targeted to ages 8 to 12. I'd quibble with that, because as an adult I thoroughly enjoyed it. But still, on the surface it seems that writing short stories for kids wouldn't be that tricky. They're short, after all? And they're kids, how much depth can they expect from a story?

And yet, even a cursory examination of this task makes you appreciate how tricky it is. As I mentioned above, these short stories don't feel short. That means that the author needs to work overtime to make a brief text seem much longer. And theme wise, targeting kids isn't so easy either. Go too light, and kids will recognize it as patronizing and uninteresting. Go to deep, and you'll loose kids. The stories in this collection seemed to nail this aspect. There's traditional kid themes, like fitting in at school and dealing with a crush. But there's also dense topics, like racism, poverty and the death of a parent to deal with. Whether it's the lighter stuff (which, to a kid, isn't light) or the heavy stuff, the book manages to find the right balance of treating these themes with respect, yet, keeping it age appropriate.

The diversity aspect of this book is another tightrope to walk. Do you shun all stereotypes, or embrace them? Again, the book seems to find a good balance here, both rolling with, ignoring and at other times challenging stereotypical behavior.

In the closing chapter of the book, where I got confirmation that diversity was a key theme in the stories, I learned about the work of Walter Dean Myers and a pivotal op-ed he published in 2014: Where Are the People of Color in Children's books? I'd highly recommend taking a few minutes to read the op-ed. Meyers makes a strong case for how diversity in books isn't just important for minorities, but for those kids who count themselves in the majority.

I've already picked up a copy for a friend's 7th grader who remarked to me that he didn't yet have firm reading plans for the summer. I'll have to get him to give me his own take on the stories and share them here.

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