Sometimes when the world is just too hard to take we all need a little comfort food–you know, mom or grandma’s down-home fried chicken or oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins. It makes us feel all warm and cozy inside and able to face another day of high school hell. The books listed below are the equivalent of that feel-good food. They go down nice and easy and most are set somewhere in the laid-back South. These are books to take to bed with you when you’re feeling blue. Not to say that these books all have happy endings. Mostly, they’re like country songs–your problems can’t possibly be worse than the person’s problems in the song. And look at it this way–they’re a nice little break from all those fast-paced, drug-drenched, urban-sprawl books you’ve been reading lately. So grab some milk and cookies and go curl up under your quilt with one of these warm-n-cozy reads.
It’s very appropriate that this debut novel was inspired in part by a Sufjan Stevens song, as this story has the same melancholy and bittersweet tone of that indie bard’s music. Cullen Witter is a suspicious, sarcastic seventeen-year-old who works at a gas station, fills his journal with the titles of books he might write (“Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting”) and hopes to someday leave his hometown of Lily, which “was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole; nothing could escape it.” He’s suffering from unrequited love for a girl who’s already taken and a deep-seated annoyance with the fact that all his neighbors have become bird crazy over a woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, that was sighted near the town river. One of the only people Cullen really likes is his younger brother Gabriel, who disappears without a trace one summer day. Once Cullen loses the compass of his brother, the only things that keep him from a quick downward spiral into anger and depression are his best friend Lucas’s bad jokes and a brief affair with a married woman. He tries to have hope that Gabriel will be returned safely while resenting the fact that everyone seems to be more interested in finding the bird than in finding his beloved brother. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an eighteen-year-old missionary named Benton Sage decides that spreading the Good Word is no longer for him, and returns home to his father’s great disappointment and rage. Benton trades his Bible for a textbook and enrolls in college, but his father still can’t forgive him. Unable to deal with his father’s disappointment, Benton commits a shocking act, setting into motion a series of events that eventually lead to Gabriel’s disappearance and Cullen’s unexpected redemption. This strange, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink story shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, bringing to mind aspects from one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. The connections between Cullen and Benton, which seem tenuous at first, end up coalescing in a way that illustrates just how much of our lives are dependent on chance and the kindness of strangers. Weird, wonderful and rare, this unusual book is just as unique as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker mentioned in its pages.
In 1899 Texas, girls are expected to know how to knit, sew, cook and clean in order to make some lucky man a good wife. But Calpurnia Virginia Tate, the only daughter in a family of six rowdy brothers, couldn’t be less interested in the domestic arts. “I had never classified myself with other girls. I was not of their species; I was different.” Instead of stitching away on samplers for her hope chest, Callie Vee prefers tromping around in the woods and wading in the creek with her blustery grandpa, a Civil War veteran and amateur naturalist. Together they collect various & sundry samples of flora & fauna, even discovering a new species of hairy vetch. As Callie discovers the wonders of the natural world, she begins to consider becoming a scientist, especially after reading Mr. Darwin’s controversial book The Origin of the Species. But is there room in Callie’s proscribed society for that oddest of creatures, a female scholar? Callie begins to notice all the ways in which men are encouraged to dream big while women are expected to limit their hopes to hearth and home. When she asks why her sibs get paid for some chores while her labor comes free, older brother Lamar scoffs, “Girls don’t get paid. Girls can’t even vote. They don’t get paid. Girls stay home.” As the new century looms large, with it’s astonishing new inventions of telephones, automobiles and Coca-Cola, it begins to dawn on Callie that these amazing technological investigations are for men alone. “I was expected to hand over my life to a house, a husband, children…There was a wicked point to all the sewing and cooking they were trying to impress upon me…My life was forfeit. Why hadn’t I seen it? I was trapped.” Can Callie draw inspiration from the intrepid female innovators who came before: Mrs. Curie, Miss Anning, Miss Kovalevsky, Miss Bird? Or is she doomed to a lifetime of darning and dusting? This delightfully detailed read, full of fascinating facts about nature and biology and imbued with all the excitement and optimism people felt as they entered a new age, is far deeper than its sweet and gentle cover implies. Like A Northern Light’s sassy little sister, ECT explores themes of feminism, racism, and gender roles with equal aplomb. And, it’s just a really, really good STORY. Anyone who ever dared to dream beyond their means are bound to get along splendidly with Miss Calpurnia Tate.
Ludie lived during a different time, in a place called West Virginia, in a region known as Appalachia. A time when girls married in their teens, when families were dependant on what could be mined from the ground, one of the only forms of entertainment was gossiping with the neighbor over the back fence, and a woman was proud to be “famous for her biscuits.” Ludie sent most of her six children to college, even though she never went herself, believed that “doting on” any animal that didn’t provide a service was “a certain pass given to those of a certain class,” and buried a beloved husband who died from the coal dust he inhaled his whole life. Cynthia Rylant’s free verse character study of a person and a way of life that is seldom explored in teen literature is a warm, poignant homage to days gone by. Draw up a chair and sit with Ludie awhile. Listen to her stories. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
D.J.’s good at two things: milking cows and playing football. She’s been working on her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm since she could walk, and learned all the ins and outs of playing ball from her two older brothers, both school champions. So when a close family friend (the coach of her school’s rival team) asks her to help his quarterback train, D.J. reluctantly agrees, thinking no one will ever find out. How was she supposed to know that a) she’d end up falling for said hunky quarterback and b) she’d also end up loving the game so much she goes out for her own team, makes it, and plays the first game of the season against her crush?! This endearing first novel is sweet, funny and the polar opposite of Gossip Girls. If you prefer a tall glass of milk to a no-foam latte and don’t mind a little football in your chick lit., then Dairy Queen is the perfect read for you!
Sassy 18 year old Alice doesn’t know if she can take being shut up with her dried up mother in law one second more. Her handsome new husband Charlie has gone off to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Union and left her in the care of his mother, a sour old lady who thinks Alice is too flighty and flirtatious. Alice’s story is told through a series of letters to her sister, where she complains about her mother in law, gossips about neighbors, worries about Charlie and shares quilt patterns. And Charlie isn’t the only one seeing action. In his absence, Alice contends with homeless vagrants, food shortages, and even accusations that she is being untrue to Charlie with a local man of ill repute. But through it all, Alice tries to stay hopeful that one day her solider boy will come walking home again. An earthy read with a little old fashioned scandal that will show you a side of the Civil War your textbook didn’t cover.
India Opal Buloni (sounds like the lunch meat) isn’t sure about her new hometown of Naomi, Florida. She hasn’t made any friends yet, because of the people her age in town, Amanda Wilkenson is “pinch-faced” and the Dewberry brothers are mean and due to their summer crew cuts, a pair of “bald headed babies” besides. But then she meets the best friend a girl could have–a big old dog she christens Winn-Dixie, since she found him smack in he middle of the produce section of the Winn-Dixie market. Through his tail-wagging antics, Winn-Dixie introduces India to a whole passel of people–Miss Franny Block, the venerable story-telling librarian of the Herman W. Block Memorial Library, Otis the guitar-playing pet store clerk, and Sweetie Pie Thomas, a knuckle-sucking five year old who loves Winn-Dixie almost as much as India. And maybe, just maybe, Winn-Dixie can help India make friends with that pinch-faced Amanda Wilkenson and those bald-headed Deweberry brothers, too. Homey and comforting, Because of Winn-Dixie goes down like hot chocolate on a cold December afternoon.
Everybody in Coal Station, Virginia thinks Woodrow Prater is a little kooky, including his cousin Gypsy. See, one night Woodrow’s mama Belle just up and disappeared and no one has seen hide nor hair of her since. Now, Woodrow is living next door to Gypsy with their grandparents and Gypsy can’t wait to find out if Woodrow knows how or why Belle Prater evaporated. Unfortunately, Gypsy doesn’t know how to go about asking very tactfully, and Woodrow is being pretty close-mouthed about the whole affair. There’ll be a whole lotta hurt feelings and broken hearts before the mystery of Belle Prater is finally solved. A fine, folky read that was chosen as a Newbery Honor book in 1996.
Most of us have been plum embarrassed by our parents at least once in our lives–usually between the ages of 12 and 17. But Tiger Ann Parker suffers from flaming cheeks more often than most teenagers because her parents are both a little on the “slow” side. The entire town of Saitter, Louisiana has seen Tiger’s mom start bawling right in the middle of the school gym when she thought she was lost, and everybody knows that her daddy can’t read. Sometimes Tiger Ann can’t wait to get away from both of them. But when the chance to escape presents itself, Tiger Ann discovers that turning her back on her parent’s simple love is a lot harder than she thought. This novel has more melodrama than a Willie Nelson song and is just as satisfying.
Nissa Bergen knows that her free-spirited mother has left forever when she finds all the purple rose blossoms cut from the bushes. Nissa has always known that the small town of Harper, Louisiana was too small for her butterfly-chasin’, hibiscus-tea-drinkin’ mama but she hoped against hope that her mother would be able to rise above the town’s small minded-ness and stay for Nissa’s sake. But the day comes that Heirah Bergen skips town for good, taking the roses and leaving Nissa to deal with the vicious gossip and her father’s new girlfriend, Miss Lara Ross, the town spinster. Nissa comes to terms with a lot that year after her mother leaves, finally finding comfort with the fact that she will always be her mother’s daughter no matter where her mother is. As old fashioned and sweet as a stick of hoarhound candy.