Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Our Aug. 9 story, “Hello, darkness,” reported that some high-school students face harm when reading dark-themed books in which characters commit suicide. A classmate of one high-school senior who killed himself said, “Every book we read told us that life was meaningless and in the end nothing matters. … These books all together made life seem hopeless.”
Some Christian schools will have no dark books on their required readings lists, but that’s not the solution: Many 16- to 18-year-olds have learned that the world is a tough place, so feeding them novels set in happy towns beset only by little tiffs will lead some to rebel against infantilization. The better way is to have them read books that show real evil but also the opportunity to fight it, both through Christian means and through some necessary worldly ones.
Here’s my unconventional reading recommendation for high-school seniors: Daniel Silva’s The Heist (HarperCollins, 2014). It’s real: starts with the murder of a fallen British spy involved in the theft of great paintings. It’s a page-turner: continues with the efforts of Silva’s great hero, Israeli spy (and art restorer) Gabriel Allon, and a brave young woman who survived a Syrian massacre. It’s a proven reader-pleaser: This is the 14th novel in a series that repeatedly hits No. 1 on bestseller lists. And The Heist is 2/3 satisfactory regarding the “bad stuff”: no bad language or sex. Some violence—remember, it has spies and Syrian bad guys—but nothing grossly graphic.
And did you twice read the word “Syrian” in my last paragraph—a tipoff that The Heist will also teach students some current events and recent history? They’ll learn about 44 years of mass murder and mega-theft by the upwardly mobile Assad family that has ascended from peasantry to a $25 billion fortune, according to some estimates. Students will learn about bank secrecy in Austria. They’ll gain sympathy for Israel, a nation still largely aloof from God (sigh) but one deserving support because its citizens built and maintain a tidy small house—although one with broken windows—on a rough street of big mansions with loaded howitzers and unchained pit bulls.
Beyond all that, Silva is an excellent writer who regularly crafts apt characterizations: “She had decorated the rooms of the house as she had decorated her husband: gray, sleek, modern.” He can turn on high-school seniors to read more than text messages and tweets. He doesn’t duck evil: “Despite all the books, the documentaries, the memorials, and the declarations regarding universal human rights, a dictator was once again killing his people with poison gas and turning them into human skeletons in camps and prisons.” But he implores us to fight and never give up.
We’ve run in previous years interviews with Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, a great history of the Depression that’s relevant to our own economic stagnation of the past seven years. (See “The hallowed New Deal,” March 8, 2008, and “Slumps that go on and on,” Nov. 20, 2010.) But what to do about kids in high-school history or social studies classes who won’t read big books? Assign them The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition (Harper, 2014). Shlaes’ colorful cast of characters—among them, businessman Wendell Wilkie, radical Rex Tugwell, and African-American preacher Father Divine—lends itself well to comic book depiction.
Students will learn that the real problem was not the stock market collapse in 1929 but that in April 1939 unemployment was still almost at 21 percent—and millions of Americans had been jobless for an entire decade. (If we included in our current unemployment figures those who have given up, plus the semi-employed who would like full-time jobs but haven’t found them—our forgotten men and women—the current U.S. stat would look like that.) A major cause of continued unemployment then and now: Washington’s war on business. —M.O.