posted by Beret
Ages: 8 and up
A couple of years ago, I received an unusual text.
“GO GET THE CANDYMAKERS AND READ IT ALOUD TO YOUR KIDS,” it advised.
It seemed rather urgent, so though the book wasn’t yet out in paperback–and weighed in at a hefty 453 pages–I “Amazon-ed” that thing and got started immediately.
Now comes the hard part: explaining why you should get the book, too.
Unlike my friend Gina, I’m not one of those people who regularly seeks out new youth literature. I’ve been burned too many times by inane codswallop like the Rainbow Magic Fairy books. If I could remember who introduced them to my kids, I might even unfriend them, since over the course of the following ten months, I was forced to read at least 42 of those.
Instead of taking another such risk, I have found myself reading old favorites aloud, often pleased to see how well authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary have stood the test of time. The Ramona books are surprisingly good, for example, and touch on everything from sibling rivalry to unemployment, guilt, latchkey kids, and death of a pet–all with a sense of humor and a healthy respect for the child’s point of view. And though Roald Dahl apparently left some room for improvement in his personal life, The BFG was simply a joy. Where else would you encounter “frobscottle” and “gropefluncking,” “snozzcumbers” and “trogglehumping?”
But Wendy Mass has made me hopeful for the future of children’s literature.
I’m not certain what her gift is, or why I enjoy her books so much. Perhaps it is simply that I never know what to expect. Even now, after reading five of her novels, each of her characters has a unique, definitive voice, and each of her books has its own flavor and approach. In the age of sequels and prequels, brand recognition and market testing, it is refreshing to encounter someone who can tell more than one kind of story–not to mention a story that has never been told before.
The Candymakers is about a contest for children which takes place in a candy factory, but therein ends the overlap with the world of Willy Wonka.
Thirty two 12-year-olds have been selected to take part in a national contest to invent a new kind of candy. The winning candy will be produced and sold nationwide. The action takes place at the Life is Sweet factory, as four of the contestants prepare for the competition. The story unfolds through their shifting perspectives, and in their alternating voices.
Logan is the candymaker’s son. Raised at the factory, he is particularly in tune with the ingredients. A quick sniff from across the room will tell him if a batch of chocolate needs another teaspoon of cocoa butter.
Miles is allergic to rowboats, pancakes, and the color pink. He tries to speak forwards as much as possible.
Daisy is a sunny girl with unmatched socks. She is impossibly strong, talks to her books, and doesn’t know how old she really is.
And then there’s Philip.
Philip refuses to eat candy. He wears a suit and tie, scribbles in a secret notebook, and disappears into storage closets from time to time.
The magical world of the factory unfolds to reveal chocolate pizza, discussions of the afterlife, depressed bees, spontaneous and irrepressible urges to hug tropical trees, and many, many secrets. As the main events are retold through each contestant’s perspective, we learn that everyone has surprisingly good reasons for behaving the way they do.
I should apologize to my kids’ teachers for the period during which we read The Candymakers. Our read aloud times stretched indefinitely, way past appropriate bedtimes, as none of us could bear to put the book down.
It is true that the very end was a bit too tidy for my liking, but it is a very small point of contention.
After that, I read Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life aloud. It’s shorter and, not surprisingly, it’s about the meaning of life. I was dubious. I didn’t think my 8 and 10-year-old were ready to consider such a meaty topic. I was wrong.
Lastly, a quick note about A Mango-Shaped Space, which may be my favorite Wendy Mass book of all. It’s about a girl with synesthesia, which means that her senses overlap. She can see sounds. Numbers, letters, and names all have colors. The 10-year-old read it first, while I waited impatiently. She laughed aloud–which she rarely does–but even more surprising was that THIS BOOK MADE HER CRY. I was completely astonished. She is a hard-boiled type, unlike me. We were alone together, in the same room, so I tried to be cool and not make a big deal about it. “Do you want a tissue?” I asked, finally.
“You’re going to cry, too,” she said, a bit defensively.
And so I did.