Friday, February 4, 2011

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo

iconiconAfter all the dark fantasy I've been reading lately, I wanted a break — something a little shorter, lighter, and not about vampires or angels or any other kind of monster.  Browsing through my OverDrive wish list, I spotted The Tiger Rising, a children's chapter book I'd thought looked interesting.  There was no wait, so I checked it out and downloaded the file.  Eight-four pages — perfect.

(A note on ebook pagination: It's not quite accurate.  Adobe apparently determines page numbers by file size, so it's always off.  It usually seems like the actual book is about one-fifth or one-sixth longer than the ebook pagination says it is.  Not that it's that big a deal — I'm more interested in the progress bar that shows how far I am in the book, anyway.)

It took me only a little over an hour to read the book, and something about the way it was written made it feel more like a novella to me than a full-length book.  Or maybe it's just all the long, dark fantasy novels I've been reading lately.  In any case, it was not quite the "light" read that I'd been looking for, even if it wasn't really "dark," either.

The book is about a 12-year-old boy whose mother died about six months ago.  He and his father have something of an awkward relationship, as his father has responded to the grief by telling Rob he was not allowed to cry or say his mother's name.  They even moved, because everyone in their old town kept talking about Rob's mother, and his father couldn't handle it.

In the new town, Rob is bullied incessantly, but he has discovered that if he doesn't respond, sometimes the bullies will stop harassing him.  Enter Sistine, a girl who has just moved to town, too, and who is also down one parent: Her father left her mother for his secretary, and she and her mother moved back to where her mother grew up.

Sistine is the complete opposite of Rob.  Where Rob isn't allowed to show emotion, Sistine has it in spades.  Rob has learned to keep everything bottled up inside, but Sistine is full of anger at her mom for losing her dad, and is convinced that her dad will come back and take her away with him.  And where Rob is scared to fight back, Sistine fights at the least provocation.

And the two unlikely friends have a secret: Rob has found a tiger in a cage out in the woods.  Rob is in awe of the tiger, but Sistine evidently sees something of her herself in the tiger's being caged, and wants to set it free.  It's a tough ending to read, because I knew they were making the wrong decision — but I wonder if kids in the age group the book is intended for would realize the consequences of Rob and Sistine's decision.

I've thought a lot about the ending and what it means.  On a very basic level, setting the tiger free represented Rob letting his emotions out, but there was something more, too.  You had the sense afterward that Sistine wasn't so angry anymore, and Rob was ready to stand up for himself.  In addition to the metaphor, the children were obviously responding to the shock of having made the wrong decision.  There's a lesson in there somewhere: It's not as easy as simply letting something go.  Life isn't that romantic; there are consequences.

This is one of the things I love about children's books — there are so many levels of meaning, so many things to think about!

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