Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Zielin, Lara. Donut Days. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. 243 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-399-25066-8. This book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, or ages 11 and up, depending on reading level. This is also a good high-low selection for upper grades (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

Librarians and Language Arts teachers who keep current with Young Adult literature like to think they can always make a recommendation from their library or classroom library shelves, regardless of the request. If a student wants a mystery like Nancy Drew but scarier, no problem. If a student wants a book about people who explore alternative lifestyles, no problem. If a student wants urban fiction or manga, no problem. If a student wants an African-American theme, a Hispanic-American theme, or an Asian-American theme, no problem. But debut author Lara Zielin’s new novel Donut Days raises an important question that I was not, before I read this book, prepared to answer: What if a student wants Christian fiction? Frankly, most of my students are Christian, and some of them are evangelical like many of the characters in Ms. Zielin’s novel. Their needs should be met, and if that means bringing in more novels like Ms. Zielin’s delightful offering, I am ready to buy.
Emma Goiner is a sixteen-year-old embroiled in the middle of a turmoil or two. Her parents, the pastors of Living Word Redeemer, a 300-member evangelical Christian congregation, have just split the worshippers over a controversial sermon delivered by Emma’s mom in which she argues that Adam (yes, that Adam) was a hermaphrodite. However, larger problems loom, because the church is in crisis over fundamental differences between the pastors and the church’s wealthiest and most influential patron. Meanwhile, Emma is having her own set of crises. First of all, the problem patron also happens to be the father of Jake, Emma’s best friend (or maybe more . . .). Secondly, Jake’s sister is stealing Emma’s BFF Natalie and Emma feels powerless to stop it. Finally, Emma is experiencing a crisis of faith prompted by a hollow baptism that was supposed to be inspirational: “I couldn’t feel anything. I wanted to reach out to him [her father, Pastor Goiner], to have him dunk me under again, because not one thing had happened when I was baptized. Not [speaking in] tongues, a vision, or even a warm-fuzzy close-to-God feeling” (15). The more she tries to feel the spirit of God, the more she is disappointed, and worst of all, she feels her lack of attachment to the tenets of the church is on display to her entire world. But whether she is ready for it or not, Emma must confront the contentious factions in her life and achieve some sort of order that works for her, even if that peace has a stiff price, like the loss of a friendship or even the loss of a home.
I like Donut Days by debut author Lara Zielin for several reasons. The plot moves reasonably well, in spurts rather than leading up to one overpowering climax, which is appropriate when the climax is not expected to have the impact of a courtroom drama decision. The novel is visually effective, so I feel that I can see the action at all times. Little pieces of imagery like the dark prints on Jake’s khaki pants that mean he has been rubbing them due to nerves are welcome characterizations. Also, the minor characters, most specifically Bear and the biker gang, are fun and unusual enough to add even more color to an already vivid landscape. Finally, I enjoyed this novel because it managed to do something completely new for me: it normalized an entire demographic, evangelical Christians. Ironically, through their foibles, they are revealed as just like everybody else, with the same hopes, desires, dreams, and limitations. I will look for more Christian fiction for my shelves, and I will add the fiction of other religions as I find it or as students request it. Not carrying those types of literature is as absurd in theory as not carrying The Chosen by Chaim Potok or Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth, both excellent novels about important American cultures, values, and mores. Donut Days by Lara Zielin is not a perfect novel, especially in the convenient manner in which Emma achieves some very powerful wisdom very quickly and handily, but in the compressed world of fiction, a first-time author can be forgiven a little lapse. Overall, this is a fine novel and a fascinating, if simplified, portrait of the evangelical community.

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Blogger Davi said...

I like Donut Days, too, and find this kind of book is particularly useful because it opens up what may be a locked belief system. The protagonist is a good evangelical Christian, and at the same time she's able to raise questions about what she's taught. She accepts the theory of evolution, for instance. Evangelical students can identify with her--and they can learn from her.

10:38 AM  
Blogger bduboff said...

I agree that she is a character to whom many people can relate, which is one of the reasons I liked her so much--I could relate to her. It is not clear what evangelicals would want to learn from her, but I learned a great deal about tolerance and belief in myself.

7:47 AM  
Blogger bduboff said...

I agree that she is a character to whom many people can relate, which is one of the reasons I liked her so much--I could relate to her. It is not clear what evangelicals would want to learn from her, but I learned a great deal about tolerance and belief in myself.

7:48 AM  

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