Diamonds in the Rough

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Imagine four orphaned children and their dog spurning a willing legal guardian to live in the wilderness. They squat in an abandoned railcar until they realize that (surprise!) their grandfather is actually rolling in the dough. From there, kids, gramps and dog live together in a mansion with said railcar in the backyard as an unconventional jungle gym. If this sounds absurd and familiar, it's because it is the plot of the (formerly) beloved children's book "The Boxcar Children."

Ridiculous as "The Boxcar Children" series seems to us now, more than a few of our adolescent favorites have maintained a privileged place on our mental bookshelves. The works of the eccentric Jerry Spinelli are certainly deserving of a spot in this prestigious canon. Though the simplicity of his prose relegates his novels to the young adult section, Spinelli credited his young readers with the ability to handle more mature themes. "Maniac Magee," his best book, tackled racism and class conflict through the eyes of a weirdly talented teenager named Maniac. A portrait of life in a tough town, it's as memorable for its bizarre imagery-including playing baseball with frogs and a Gordion type-knot-as for its lessons. It's this pitch-perfect combination that gives the novel a modest brilliance and an overlooked staying power.

The same can be said of "Crash," which remains one of the most introspective novels we've ever read, despite being narrated by a seventh grader. It's the story of a pee-wee football phenomenon, a bro-in-training named Crash who must somehow navigate the pitfalls of junior high amid the intermittent nagging and negligence of his parents, senile grandfather and nerdy Quaker of a next door neighbor. If that sounds like a recipe for masochistic hilarity, you're very perceptive in fact, eerily so.

If Spinelli combined life lessons with comedy, Christopher Paul Curtis' "The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963" mixed the painfully funny, nostalgic and tragic. Based on the author's experiences growing up in Flint, Michigan, Curtis tells the story of the Watson family through the eyes of youngest son Kenny. Life for the nerdy black youth consists mainly of trying to endure Flint's sub-zero winter days and assorted bullies, particularly the abuse of his older brother Byron, a maniacal delinquent. But Kenny's daily struggles and occasionally irrational fears are exacerbated by his family's trip to visit relatives in Birmingham, where he experiences the venom of Southern racism first hand. We've read few accounts as capable of effortlessly submerging the reader in the confusing atmosphere of that particular time and place.

Of all the books we read, "My Side of the Mountain," which glorified running away and surviving in the mountains, was the one we most wanted to live out. Jean Craighead George's novel made the fantasy of heading for the hills with a loaf of bread and a pocket knife seem much more feasible and cool than wannabe adult lit like "Hatchet." The book even made falconry cool until "The Royal Tenenbaums" came around.

But perhaps the best, most nerdy tale of runaway youth is "From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." Camping out in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, solving mysteries, meeting eccentric old ladies-E.L. Konigsburg had all the essentials of children's novels and wrote precocious characters like the ones we always wanted to be. In all seriousness, running away seems to be an important trope in children's literature and one that resonates with all ages. Spike Jonez's forthcoming adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" is another example of just that. And maybe that's why children's literature hits college students so hard. We're still trying to run away.

Plan a trip to the Met with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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