Poignant Words: Boys Talk

Understanding Buddy

by Marc Kornblatt, McElderry, $16


by Michael Fraser, Atheneum, $15

Secret Letters From 0 to 10

by Susie Morgenstern, translated from the French by Gill Rosner, Puffin Books, $4.95

A Book of Coupons

by Susie Morgenstern, illustrated by Serge Bloch, translated from the French by Gill Rosner, Viking, $12.99

Sam Keeperman is a fifth grader whose family’s cleaning woman is killed when she drives into a tree to avoid a deer. That fall, her son Buddy is the new kid in class, and Understanding Buddy is the story of Sam’s attempt to befriend him. No one at school has said anything about the death, and Sam assumes the event is too painful and private to be mentioned. But keeping this secret takes its toll. Sam’s best friend Alex can’t understand Sam’s protective kindness to Buddy, who acts indifferent and hardly speaks. Sam keeps deciding not to share his thoughts and questions with his old friend, his new friend, his teacher, his principal, his family. Never in trouble until now, he starts to fight—even coming to blows with Buddy— because of misunderstandings that grow out of his silence. Keeping silent gains Sam a kind of grown-up manliness, but the real growth in this realistic book about heartbreak comes when the boys actually speak out.

Intermittently Sam sits in Hebrew school classes where the kids discuss: Was the flood a big mistake God made? Was it right for God to test Abraham? Why couldn’t the twins Jacob and Esau be friends? Author Marc Kornblatt is an afternoon Hebrew school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. Luckily, we who can’t be in his class can read this book.

Like Sam, Marc Chaiken—narrator of 6-321, named for a sixth grade class in a Queens, New York, public school—also grows into silence. Marc is beaten up on the playground because of a misunderstanding—and is then punished for it. Not complaining about this, not telling his friend Lily how much he likes her, and retreating to his room when his parents are squabbling instead of confiding in them, are among his poignant heroics.

In an endnote to his autobiographical debut children’s novel— which closes with President Kennedy’s assassination—Michael Laser tells of researching the news, curricula, TV shows, songs and slang of 1963. In the interest of full disclosure he writes that the real sweet girl he had a crush on in sixth grade was actually Jewish, like most of his classmates, not Asian, as she is in the book.

Unlike Sam and Marc, whose struggles to grow up seem to be about containing themselves and then slowly learning when to speak out, Susie Morgenstern’s Secret Letters from 0 to 10 introduces a boy who is strong and silent because nothing ever happens to him. Then ten-year-old Parisian Ernest wakes up to life under the intrepid and unremitting life force of a new girl in his class. Victoria loves him at first sight, and, with an entourage of thirteen brothers (twelve named for the Twelve Tribes of Israel) overruns Ernest’s gray, routine life and captures his heart.

Ernest reconnects with his father, never heard from since he abandoned the boy to the care of his grandmother when Ernest’s mother died in childbirth. Through serendipity and the pursuit of clues, Victoria and family help in this endeavor, which includes the receipt of a box of ten years of letters to Ernest written, one each day, by his father. The reader cheers for the love, fun, good humor and sweetness in this book as these bravely challenge tragedy and sadness.

A Book of Coupons, also set in Paris, is only the second book in English by Susie Morgenstern—a New Jersey native who has published over 40 children’s books in French. In this lighthearted classroom parable a new teacher gives his students coupons entitling them to lose homework, dance in class, sing at the top of their lungs wherever they like, tell a lie, sleep in class. The students—and readers-learn that to be born is to have permission to be fully alive, and that an adult who encourages seemingly transgressive behavior is to be cherished.