Monday, August 19, 2013

A Corner of the Universe for Everyone

Every family has secrets, but some secrets are harder than others to fully understand. In this touching little book, Ann M. Martin, one of my favorite authors of all times, tells the story of one girl, one family, and one universe. In A Corner of the Universe, Hattie's summer of 1960 is one that will change her life forever.

Hattie's parents ran a boarding house. There were many rules for the house, but not as many rules as in her grandmother's proper, sophisticated home. The summer is your typical summer until word comes to Hattie's family that her uncle Adam is coming home. Hattie didn't even know she had an uncle Adam. Significantly younger than her mother and her other uncle, Adam has lived most of his life at a special school. Unfortunately, that school is closing, and Adam's parents have to take care of them until they can find an appropriate place for him to stay.

At first Hattie isn't sure what to expect from Adam. She has heard words like "retarded" and schizophrenic and autistic to describe him, but she isn't sure what all that means. When he finally arrives, though, she is surprised at one thing in particular. When Adam is happy, he is the happiest person on earth. And most of the time, Adam is very happy. Most of the time. Throughout the summer, Hattie spends a lot of time with Adam. He teaches her, she teaches him, and most importantly, she finds a friend in the man her family seems to be ashamed of. What Hattie doesn't know is that there are deeper, darker pieces of Adam's psyche that can't be overcome by ice cream, I Love Lucy, and carnivals. 

I need to first profess my undying love for Ann M. Martin. This is the woman who made me a reader. Right here! And it wasn't because of the Babysitter's Club that I became a reader. It was because of a book she wrote called 10 Kids, No Pets. I read that book so many times, my copy literally fell to pieces. Disintegrated. But I haven't read anything from Martin in decades, so I had really high expectations from this story... and it didn't disappoint. 

Hattie is your typical 12 year old girl growing up in Millerton. That's right! Millerton! Now, don't expect Millerton in 2013 if you are a local, because this is Millerton in 1960, but how cool is it that Martin wrote about our very town?! So exciting! Hattie's grandparents are very wealthy and don't necessarily approve of their daughter's choice in husband (and artist, gasp!), but they deal with it since they moved back to Millerton to raise Hattie and run the boarding house. The monkey wrench of a son like Adam is such a touchy subject with this family that it leaves one word on the tip of your tongue as you read: shame. It is so sad to see this model of shipping off a "damaged" son who ruins your perfect persona, and I think this mindset is one our students would have a difficult time understanding in 2013. That makes this a perfect story to read together, and if possible, a phenomenal story for them to read with a grandparent or older teacher. I am sure this story will provoke questions, so who better than to read it with than someone who lived through this era in history?

Hattie is the true gem of this story, but Adam plays a close second. He is so happy and truly just enjoys all that life has. The dialogue from Adam really paints a picture of this bright young man that makes him all the more endearing. But of course, not everyone will find someone who is so different to be endearing. And that is why I loved Hattie so much. Even as an impressionable young 12 year old, she defends Adam both to strangers who are ready to mock him or call him a freak, but also to his own family who treat him like a stain upon their perfect family. She really was a wonderful kid- one you will love to expose your students to. I absolutely loved this story, and while the subject matter can be heavy at times, I think our middle readers can handle it. In fact, the heavy parts of the story are handled so beautifully, it made me remember just how much I loved Martin's writing. She knows how to use circumstances and inference to guide the reader, not dictate to the reader. So please give this book a chance and remember, it is better to read about tough subjects with your kids and to talk to them about it than to try to shelter them for too long. Kids never stay sheltered for too long. 

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