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GRETCHEN HAERTSCH REVIEWS “Crossing to Paradise” and “Marcelo in the Real World”

August 30, 2010

In May, after meeting Arthur Levine at Arcadia University where I teach, I resolved to read a few of the recent YA books on his list – novels he mentioned in his talk and that particularly intrigued.

As a historical YA writer myself, I couldn’t resist Crossing to Paradise by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006). And what fascinating time travel to the middle ages it launched me on! As the novel opens, the reader meets fifteen-year-old Gatty, an illiterate field girl on a quiet English manor. Save for the protection of the manor folk, Gatty is alone in the world following the recent deaths of her father and grandmother When she is unexpectedly chosen to serve as a chamber-servant to the good and pious Lady Gwyneth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, her life of sleeping in the cow shed with her cow Hopeless is about to seriously change.

Gatty’s angelic singing voice and indomitable bravery and loyalty soon win the hearts of the ragtag assortment of fellow pilgrims who set on the journey with her. Sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, the pilgrims travel through the cacophony of London, cross two oceans, climb the Alps, and survive the trickery of Venice, all in a quest for the religious mysteries of Holy Sepulcher. Readers are treated to a Canterbury Tale-like adventure as Gatty circles the map, on the way confronting issues of abandonment, prejudice, faith, and love. This meticulously researched and beautifully written historical novel provides a rare treat that will broaden the imagination of adult as well as YA readers.

Next on my list was Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009), another YA novel – this one contemporary – that proves why adults are “crossing over” to YA in record numbers. This novel tackles the topic of autism in a particularly sensitive and complex way. When Marcelo’s lawyer father forces him to give up his dream summer job working with horses to deliver mail in his law firm, Marcelo only agrees because it means he can choose to stay at his “special school” senior year. Otherwise, his father will enroll him in the local public school, a prospect that scares Marcelo even more than confronting the “real world” for the summer.

At first, even the daily train commute is a challenge for autistic Marcelo, who, though high-functioning, is fairly clueless about some mundane aspects of everyday life. Saying the rosary out loud on the train? It’s not the done thing, Marcelo’s father tells him. Talking about oneself in the third person? Brands you as odd in the work-a-day world – a fact that Marcelo must learn for himself. Yet in a Forest Gump sort of way, Marcelo soon proves he has it all over some of the folks at the law firm … and that could include his own father. The unscrupulous and predatory son of his father’s partner may appear to have his own future sewed up, but Marcelo’s superior sense of morality wins the day. This novel makes an interesting contemporary statement about integrity and social conscious that casts a skeptical eye on the “haves” among us. I also like that Marcelo learns to see his parents as fallible creatures who don’t always have the right answers for him. Beautifully written and surprising in its plot twists, Marcelo in the Real World also can make us laugh as Stork subtly reminds the reader that there is indeed a place for everyone in this “real” world – interestingly, also a theme in Crossing to Paradise.

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