As a kid, I spent hours of every day outside. My sister, neighbors, and I had every square foot of our wooded neighborhood memorized by heart. We knew all the secret passages, all the best climbing trees, all the best places to play in the creek without chancing a spill into the creek--because of course a stumble into the water would mean wet pants, a dead giveaway to our mothers that we were, once again, playing in the forbidden stream. (Sorry, Mom--but I'm sure you knew we played back there, right?)
It seems that many older (e.g., non-kids) folks have been complaining over the years about how The Kids These Days don't spend enough time outside. They're overbooked with piano lessons, baseball practice, church groups, and video games. Maybe that's true for lots of kids, but I happen to know several awesome children who still explore their yards and play pretend.
At the SIBA trade show a few weeks back, I attended an author luncheon. While I ate a lunch of boiled vegetables smothered in 2" of cheese, I listened to some formidable authors speak about their work and read excerpts of their writing. Though all four authors' books sounded intriguing, I could tell immediately that Silas House's Eli the Good would mean something special to me. House spoke of the ways in which he revered the environment around him as a child, of the ways in which he felt he communicated with the trees and nature in a way that most children do not these days. This was the kind of kid I was, scrambling up the magnolia tree in our front yard so I could stare at the patterns in the bark and maybe even read my latest Sweet Valley Twins installment. I thought nothing of spending hours on end outside, peeing in the woods when I needed to rather than having to go back indoors.
In Eli the Good, we meet a quiet, introspective boy (Eli) who's slowly waking up to the idea that the romanticized view he had of his life might not be entirely accurate. His best friend is the vivacious Edie, a girl who lives next door and who's tougher than any of the boys in the neighborhood (but who, of course, has some soft spots, too). Eli's marked with a fierce love for his family, even when he can't firmly grasp why his dad gets so violent and why his mom always sticks up for him, what his beloved Aunt Nell and protective older sister Josie are whispering about in the dark. As the story moves along, we watch Eli grow more mature, opening himself up to some of the profund sadness, beauty, and pleasure of the world. Like many gifted children, Eli seems hypersensitive to sensory experiences and emotional interactions with people, even when he's not quite able to verbalize what he's feeling. Silas House is adept at his characterizations, especially as he shows us Eli growing less sheltered but more mature by the day.
In the midst of Eli's love affair with trees and the outdoors, we have the oft violent presence of his Vietnam War veteran father, who is struggling with post traumatic stress disorder and can't quite figure out how to get help--or if he wants to get help at all. I learned a lot about the effects of war on family life by reading Eli the Good; in fact, the war itself is an ominous, forever-lurking character in the book, always waiting around the corner to pounce on an otherwise peaceful moment. Eli lives with the pressure of dealing with the war every day, never knowing when it will thunder down and disrupt the peace he's trying so hard to cultivate. I imagine that veterans and their kids might do well to read this book.
All that being said, Eli the Good is neither a scary book about an abused family nor an idyllic description of growing up a weird, woodsy kid. Eli's age and intelligence are clear to the reader; he's never imbued with an overly mature point of view (as many "kids" in young adult literature tend to be, thereby giving away the fact that the writer is, in fact, old and wise, looking back on his or her life).
Silas House speaks at SIBA trade show
I really encourage you to buy a copy of Eli the Good to read it for yourself.
Congratulations to Barbara, who's won a copy of the book! Barbara, please email me at avid[dot]athens[at]gmail[dot]com with your mailing address so I can get the book out to you.