No, not the books by Noël Streatfield, but slice-of-life books that I think of as “walking in someone else’s shoes” books. They’re written in a convincing, ready to assume the loafers or tennis shoes or flip-flops manner that allows me to become the main character from the front cover to the back cover … and savor my new understanding of, or my empathy for, someone else’s life. These are not usually historical books (it is easier to wear the shoes of a character whose story takes place during my lifetime), fantastical, mysteries, science fiction, comedic, or I’m-making-a-point books. Instead, I can try on the thoughts, experiences, and words of another person whose life could have been mine if I had been born to other parents. The titles I’m sharing today also qualify as perfect lying-on-the-blanket-under-the-tree summer reading.
In Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s book, The Year the Swallows Came Early (HarperCollins), Groovy Robinson begins her story by saying, “We lived in a perfect stucco house, just off the sparkly Pacific, with a lime tree in the backyard and pink and yellow roses gone wild around a picket fence. But that wasn’t enough to keep my daddy from going to jail the year I turned eleven.” Groovy loves to cook. She keeps notebooks filled with recipes and menus. In fact, she has theories about matching foods to emotions, an intriguing notion in itself. Observant and thoughtful, Groovy helps out in a restaurant owned by her best friend Frankie’s stepbrother, Luis. Of all the characters in this book, Luis is on my dinner invitation listâ€”what a gem of a guy he is. Frankie’s mother left him, saying she was going away for a few weeks to fish, which turned into two years, which has turned Frankie’s heart to stone. The grownups in this book don’t share their reasons with the children, not right away, which is one of the qualifiers for a “shoes” book. That’s real life. The book is set in San Juan Capistrano, so the swallows returning is an important element, woven deftly into the story of people who have gone away and may or may not return. Life is uncertainty, but it is also dependability. Kathryn’s debut novel is well-paced, with a memorable cast of characters, and a story that will leave you reluctant to take off this particular pair of shoes.
Popeye acquired his nickname when he was three years old. There was a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a Red Ryder BB gun involved. “Popeye had been Popeye ever since.” His grandmother, Velma, takes care of him and this is a good thing. “Popeye needed Velma not to crack up because no one else in his family was very good at taking care of him.” Looking down at the shoes I’ve put on with The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis, written by Barbara O’Connor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), they are covered in red dust. It’s the South, a place I have never lived, the roads of which I’ve walked convincingly in Barbara’s many books. Popeye is bored. “It would always be boring in Fayette, South Carolina. Every day would be the same. Popeye was certain about that. But Popeye was wrong.” Indeed, a Holiday Rambler with a mom and dad and six kids gets stuck in the red mud on the road near Popeye’s house and life will never be the same. Elvis and Popeye become fast friends, but there’s Calvin, Prissy, Walter, Willis, and Shorty to avoid when the two boys set off for adventure. Who is sailing mysterious small boats down the creek? Where do the dead dogs live? How can they solve these mysteries without going “too far” into the woods? How will Popeye avoid making Velma “livid”? Read this and enjoy gem-like lines, such as “Calvin! You got your stupid head on today?” These shoes fit, even if they’re walking down Southern roads. And Velma is invited over dinner.
In The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes (Putnam), I’m fortunate to wear the shoes of a foster child … without having to be one. Paris has a mom with a messed-up head and a penchant for drinking too much. She moves the kids around a lot and never stays put for very long. When Paris, age eight, and her brother Malcolm, age ten, are placed in foster care, their experiences are bad enough to make them run away. The only family they have left is their grandmother, but she says, “I’ve already raised my kids. I’m too old to start that all over again.” Malcolm and Paris are separated, each one sent to foster homes hours away from each other. Paris goes to live with the Lincolns, who turn out to be the best kind of family for a girl like her. It takes her awhile to build her trust with this family and potential friends at school. She’s never been at a school for long, so everything is new to her. This is a book filled with love and understanding and hope.
What’s it like to think of yourself as a liar? How do you live inside of that skin? How do you wear those shoes? Beach shoes, in this case. In Julie Schumacher’s The Book of One Hundred Truths (Delacorte), Thea is keeping a secret. Keeping the secret makes her lie, and lie, and lie. She’s twelve years old. Her parents have been sending her to the New Jersey coast to visit her relatives every summer since she was six. This time, her mother hands her a farewell gift. “It’s a notebook of truths. You can write anything you want in here, as long as every single thing you write is true.” It turns out her mother expects her to write one hundred true things in that book. Thea can’t imagine how she will do this. She is, after all, a Liar. This will also be challenging because her seven-year-old cousin, Jocelyn, is nosy and she wants to know what Thea is writing in this book. Her nosiness extends to the secret that Aunt Celia and Aunt Ellen are guarding and the girls become convinced they must found out what it is. They’re afraid it’s all about putting their grandparents in a nursing home. Neither of the girls can imagine life changing in this way. As it turns out, secrets and lies and hurt and love get tangled together until everyone trusts everyone else enough to tell the truth.
In what I thought might be the hardest fit for a new pair of shoes, Rita Williams-Garcia writes about One Crazy Summer (Amistad) when Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern travel to Oakland, California, to stay for the summer with their mother, Cecile, who abandoned them seven years ago. Even though Delphine and her sisters live full-time with their father and grandmother, it really bothers the girls that their mother left them behind. This will be the first time they’ve seen her since she left and it turns out Cecile doesn’t want them there. She makes the girls walk to get Chinese takeout for their meals, won’t let them in the kitchen even though Delphine knows how to cook, says nothing about the strange people who slip in and out of her house, and then sends them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers. Set in 1968, this is a time I vaguely remember but it is a life I cannot imagine. Fiercely in charge at age eleven, Delphine takes care of her younger sisters with adult determination. As an only child, I don’t know the weight of this responsibility. Delphine doesn’t agree with the ideas her summer camp Sisters are trying to get into her head. “We didn’t come here for the revolution.” She has been raised to think a certain way and it takes her awhile to take the risk, to look at things from her mother’s point of view. Delphine finds herself wanting to earn her mother’s respect, to find ways in which they are alike. It’s a book I want to read again, to make sure I didn’t miss any of the good parts.
What are your “shoe” books? Which books can you recommend to people who want to try on a different pair of shoes for awhile?