Most of us know about the Caldecott and Newbury awards for children's literature, but the American Library Association offers additional literary prizes as well, such as the Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences. Three recent winners feature teens' creativity, bravery and honor as they vie for survival.
William Kamkwamba describes his determination to bring wind power to his very poor family in Malawi. In 2002, when he was 15 years old, his small, landlocked country was hit with its worst famine in history. He and his family almost starved to death while trying to survive on their small farm. Without money for schooling but with a curious mind that would not give up, William studied old engineering books and, despite ridicule from fellow villagers, built a windmill that powered lights in his parents' home. "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope" would make a wonderful holiday gift to any young person who might enjoy a little inspiration and encouragement.
Girls are called upon to perform heroic deeds too. In "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe," readers meet a young, professional Afghan woman named Kamila Sidiqi (name changed for her protection). Author and former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years in Afghanistan following Kamila's story, which she relates in a simple, straightforward and sensitive style. When the Taliban moved into Kabul, women were suddenly deprived of their freedom and livelihoods. Kamila's mother, father and older brother fled the area, leaving her to manage the family. At great personal risk she learned to sew, started a business as a seamstress and ended up employing all her sisters, her brother and neighborhood women. Out of her despair grew a brave young entrepreneur full of determination and resilience.
The third title is more difficult to categorize. The characters are based on people whom the author grew up with, but they are not specific individuals. Laced with profanity, this book is also grittier and more graphic than the other two, but "Salvage the Bones" imparts the biggest emotional bang due to the fine writing style of its author, Jesmyn Ward. After living through Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Ward felt it was important to record the bravery and strength required of the survivors in coastal Mississippi towns. Esch, the 14-year-old protagonist, is pregnant and lives in a rundown home with her drunken father and three brothers. (Her mother passed away after the birth of her youngest brother.) Each of these complex characters has hopes and dreams that seem impossible in their impoverished situation. The book encompasses the 12 days leading up to and including the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath. Esch and her family try to prepare as best they can despite the injuries, tragedies and stresses that most of us never have to face. The reader gains insights into these relationships with the addition of Esch's fascination with the myth of Medea, her brother's devotion to his pit bull and her loyalty to him. The strength and love of family must sustain them.
Since these books are adult titles, they present a wonderful opportunity for parents to read them when their teens do and discuss some very interesting topics and situations. We just have to remember not to create a self-serving teachable moment by reminding our kids just how fortunate they are to be growing up here in Summit County.