Remembering Raquel

Van Velde’s book of remembrance about a fictional teen gives multiple insights about youth psyche.

If you hear about a book that’s supposed to feature different points of view about high school children, neighbors, and family members of a recently deceased girl, you might roll your eyes. I was a bit skeptical myself. Even though I trust Vivian Vande Velde to give me a stellar story, this very plot idea reeked of a glorified ant-bullying PSA—until I read it.

See, I should have trusted Vande Velde!

In Remembering Raquel, every person in young Raquel’s life has a chapter featured that includes their own personal story with the titular character—whose death was likely an accident, depending on whose recollections you read, and not the suicide attempt that some people believe. It is slowly revealed that she is not just the school “fat girl,” but a bright, funny teen with at least one good best friend, who sadly was split from her after their elementary schools were funneled into middle schools—which happens to kids all of the time.

It’s not a pandering book. There aren’t big revelations like, “Oh, if I’d been nicer to her Raquel would still be here!” There are a few subtle realizations like this, but mostly there is just the remembrance of a girl who didn’t mean a lot to most people until she died. There is also the forging of friendships—and the learning about one’s self that often occurs when faced with mortality.

Of course, there is also the stuck-up airs of people who can never seem to get over themselves no matter what, who do not possess a shred of humility or compassion, and that was actually enjoyable to read, too—not because such people are a delight to be around, but because it’s the truth, and it helps us remember that even if life gets hard and we suddenly aren’t in the picture anymore, the people we wish would change often won’t anyway.

I enjoyed this YA novel and I think teens would, too, though it’s not like Vande Velde’s other works as much as I’d have liked it to be. It still had some surprises in store for readers, which is her trademark, but I guess I just wanted a witch or a talking wolf somewhere…That, of course, is just my love of fantasy coming through. Kids who enjoy coming of age novels, and teachers who are looking for age appropriate material, would probably do well with this short novel.

If I Stay

This brief book packs a punch.

Most of the young adult literature that I’ve been consuming lately has been between 300 and 600 pages, making it seem like anything under 200 isn’t even a full novel. So when I picked up the wildly popular If I Stay by Gayle Forman and saw it was under 200 words, I figured it would be a quick read.

The answer to that theory, however, was yes and no—it didn’t take long to read, no, but it still took longer than a typical book of 200 words because every page was filled with thought-provoking, often poetic prose. It is the story of Mia, a musical prodigy with a loving, supportive family, gorgeous and kind boyfriend, and fabulous best friend. She leads the kind of life that we all wish we’d led as teens—normal, with passion and support, and the ability to follow her own interests with approving parents at her side. Even her younger brother is beloved rather than a pest, for the most part.

But then her life takes a horrific turn in one day, and that day is depicted in this entire book—as are some of Mia’s memories that tell us about her life and family just as vividly as if they were in present tense. The one question—which is posed as the book’s title—is not answered until the very end of the book, and by then readers will be so engaged in Mia’s story, in her family, that they won’t even know what they want the answer to be.

This novel is one of the most gorgeous, hopeful reads I’ve experienced in a while, and I’m so glad I read it. Lately I’ve been sticking to fantasy and paranormal fiction because that’s my favorite, but I saw this one highly recommended on one of my favorite book blogs and thought that I just had to check it out. I’m very glad I did.

Forman wrote a sequel to the book that I couldn’t even wait to get from the library; I had to download it immediately onto my digital reader. I’m only 25 pages in but it seems just as dramatic and gut-grabbing as the first already. It’s more mysterious, but the drama is like it was in the first book—well handled, grave without being flippant, and moving, the way drama should be. I am very excited about this author and ready to check out even more of her work.

Little Mouse on the Prairie

Other than its cute title play on the television show with a similar name, Little Mouse on the Prairie didn’t impress me very much. Sure, it had cute doe-eyed illustrations much like the rest of the books in the Serendipity series produced in the late 1970s for children, and I do like that it features animals, whom my daughter loves as well. But the book itself portrays a very confusing message for kids, and I wasn’t even sure what to say when my daughter didn’t get the book when we were finished with it, either.

It’s about a mouse who works all throughout the summer while all of the other mice play. She prepares for the winter, collecting food and creating a comfortable, cosy home for herself. She ignores the mice who are playing, saying she has no time for such play. Of course, come winter, the other mice are homeless and miserable, just about dying in the cold while she is warm and safe in her home. Eventually she decides to let them in out of the goodness of her heart, despite their previous teasing, and they are all safe throughout the winter. She teaches them to weave and sew while they teach her to laugh and sing and we readers are reminded to remember her laughing on cold winter days.

Really? I mean, I don’t want the mouse to turn the other mice out, but that is the end—to remember her laughing? Had she laughed all summer like they’d insisted, none of them would make it through the winter!

Striking a balance between the fun and the work should have been the focus, but it wasn’t, and we are left not knowing how the other mice fare the following seasons. Do they take the lessons to heart? Do they prepare for winter, too, while she, in turn, plays a bit while she prepares herself? We don’t know. All we know is that they did nothing but play all summer and still got free room and board, and maybe even learned how to care for themselves out of it, though we don’t know if they ever really do.

She in turn did learn songs and dances, which are important—and I think it’s a fair exchange if they, say, helped collect food and such, or if she had plenty of food to share out of the goodness of her heart—but I still don’t see a lesson there. Her hard work paid off; she lost nothing from being industrious. Hopefully she, too, strikes a balance, but again, we are left not knowing.

My best friend loves this series, but I am not sure why. I think I might pass the books on to her if she wants them because I just don’t understand them. Perhaps the other books in the series will be better.