I came of age during a long and dreary era in children's literature, when advocates of "realistic" fiction wrote novels for children in which they developed the theme that, to come of age properly, a character must be traumatized first. All the usual trials of puberty were magnified several times over, and as an added bonus, dysfunctional families, drug addiction, death, suicide, abuse, various diseases, grinding poverty, and vastly age-inappropriate material were thrown in routinely. As a result, the average kid in middle-class America grew up thinking he was missing something if he had a happy childhood, or, like me, grew up loving fantasy fiction and avoiding "realism" at all costs.
The tables are turned these days, and fantasy literature is the more popular genre. It's a great time to be a kid. But it would be a mistake to dismiss realism entirely; it has a unique ability to help young people process the troubles of life by bringing them out into the open and seeing how others cope. The novels I find to be worth reading in this genre have the same qualities we look for in all good fiction. I especially am drawn to stories that express a coherent worldview and have a positive resolution: not necessarily the same thing as a "happy ending," but I crave that too.
Dove Song, by Kristine Franklin, is a sweetly-written book of (relatively) recent history. Bobbie Lynn's father has just been deployed to Vietnam; her mother has always been subject to "delicate" spells and has abruptly relocated the family from Texas to Tacoma, WA to be near him before his deployment. When word comes that he is MIA, she spirals into severe depression and mental illness, leaving Bobbie Lynn and her older brother Mason to care for her unassisted, and trying to hide their situation from any adult authorities who, they fear, will break up the family. Amidst this stress, Bobbie Lynn and Wendy Feeney form a bond as playground outcasts. Wendy's profoundly retarded sister and her loving family provide a much-needed haven of ordinary human connectivity. The doves of the title are metaphors for the presence of God's grace in our lives; not, as I had at first assumed, a reference to the peace movement. Or at least, not primarily. The recurring theme of guardian angels makes this a book of realistic fiction with redemptive qualities, albeit with a very Roman Catholic flavor. Without giving away the ending, I'll say you may cry, but not the cry of the hopelessly despairing who have invested in too much postmodern realism. This book would be appropriate for most middle school aged children, but the subject matter may be too disturbing for some, although it's handled sensitively.
I actually know the author slightly; we've crossed paths on Ravelry, that great meeting-place for all things relating to the fiber arts. I believe she commented on one of my sweaters... why yes, I believe it was the one I'm wearing in my profile picture. She has a fiber arts blog as well. Anyway, I've read another book of hers, Grape Thief (also published as Cuss), which contains a fair amount of Latin. It's a truly wonderful book that deserves a post all its own, so I'll do that one another time.