Characters so real they walk off page in Scotland-set novel – Twin Cities

We begin today with your chance to hear Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart discuss, in person, his second novel, “Young Mungo” (Grove Press, $27). His debut, “Shuggie Bain,” won the prestigious Booker Prize.

Douglas Stuart as Sarah Blesener

Please make room on your TBR list for this engaging book, which the author will talk about at 6 pm Friday, April 29, at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, in conversation with Minnesota Public Radio correspondent Euan Kerr. Admission is $27. To register go to

Part mystery, part coming-of-age as a gay man, “Young Mungo” is filled with beautiful writing and characters so real they walk off the page. The reader is swept away to the working-class tenements of Glasgow in Scotland and into the lives of teenager Mungo, his sister Jodie and their older brother Hamish.

This is how Jodie thinks of her brother:

Mungo’s capacity for love frustrated her. His loving him was n’t selflessness; he simply couldn’t help it. Mo-Maw needed so little and he produced too much, so that it all seemed a horrible waste. It was a harvest no one had seeded, and it blossomed from a vine no one had tended. It should have withered years ago, like hers had, like Hamish’s had. Yet Mungo had all this love to give and it lay about him like ripened fruit and nobody bothered to gather it up.

Mungo, who may have Tourette’s Syndrome, is the only one of the siblings to love their alcoholic mother, no matter that she leaves them all the time to pursue men. Jodie, who has plans to attend college, has raised this beautiful boy who seems to be gentle but can react in fury when he’s pushed. Their brother Hamish, known as Ha-Ha, is the cruel head of a gang of Protestant boys who thinks his brother needs toughening.

When Ha-Ha summons Mungo to an all-out rumble with the local Catholic kids, using bricks and knives, Mungo knows he has to go to uphold the family’s honor and because if he doesn’t Ha-Ha will beat him. He also knows if he participates in the fight he will lose James, a Catholic who keeps racing pigeons.

This is a two-track story. One thread is about Mungo’s growing and forbidden love for James. The story of their feelings about one another and their love, which is never consummated, is told with tenderness. Mungo has to watch while James flirts with girls so nobody thinks he’s a “poofter.” But the boys dream of finding somewhere to be together without harassment.

The second, and more frightening, thread is about Mungo’s “Mo-Maw” turning him over to two men she’d just met for a fishing trip to the cold lochs in the west, where the young man sees natural beauty for the first time . There, he must overcome his quiet nature from him to save himself as he learns the true intentions of his companions from him.

The Hamiltons are one dysfunctional family. Mungo, named for a saint, wants only to be with James. Jodie is tired, having tended her brother’s wounds, fed him and loved him all their lives, filling her in for their mother. Hamish has physically tormented Mungo since they were boys. Their mother de ella is, by turns, devoted, angry at her de ella “weans,” flirty with the men who patronize the food truck she tends, and in various stages of drunkenness. No matter how disgusting her behavior, Mungo loves her.

Violence is set against love in this book. Yet it ends on a note of hope for Mungo’s future.

Learning from children’s picture books

One of the many pleasures surrounding children’s picture books is that adults can learn from them, too. For instance, this reader had never heard of 19th-century poet and lover of flowers Celia Thaxter, nor of her classic book “An Island Garden.”

In “Celia Planted A Garden” (Candlewick Press, $18.99), Minnesotan Phyllis Root and Gary Schmidt, both award-winners, take young readers to Appledore Island in the isles of Shoals off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Subtitled “The Story of Celia Thaxter and Her Island Garden,” the book is about a woman who coaxed beauty out of a harsh landscape.

Celia Thaxter
Celia Thaxter

When Celia was 4, her father became the lighthouse keeper on White Island, where Celia planted flowers between the rocks. Then, her father built a large hotel on Appledore Island, Maine. It was one of the first resort hotels to be built on the New England coast, and a gathering place for greats of the late 19th century such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Childe Hassam, the impressionist painter who illustrated Thaxter’s best-known book , “An Island Garden.”

When Celia married and moved to the mainland, she “missed the tumbled shores of her island home, and the rising and falling tides, and the crash of the waves on the rocks — and her garden.”

Eventually, Celia’s mother needed her and she returned to the island and ran the hotel, filling the lobby and grounds with flowers — “pansies, sweet peas and hollyhocks, dark larkspurs and foxgloves, and tall sunflowers and red dahlias and nasturtiums and golden California poppies …”

“An Island Garden” was published in 1894, the year of Thaxter’s death. The authors of “Celia Planted a Garden” point out that “although (Thaxter’s) poetry is still anthologized, and her paintings and ceramic decoration still prized, it is her account of her garden that is her chief fame. ” The garden has been re-created on the island on which she is buried.

“Celia Planted A Garden” can’t be fully described as a children’s picture book because there is much more text, suitable for kids who can read (and adults who love gardens).

Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are delicate and graphically the book is a joy, with flowers, drawings of the town, a picture of Celia and her husband, all filling every page with energy. (For more information about Thaxter’s “An Island Garden” go to

“Say What, Little Duck?” by Jen Teschendorf, illustrated by Sarah Cazee-Widhalm (Derby Press/Gray Duck Media, paperback, $15.99, hardcover $21.99)

Did you know there is a font especially suited to dyslexic children? Minnesotan Jen Teschendorf wrote this colorfully illustrated book about a mother duck communicating with her gosling when the author’s daughter was just learning to talk and would speak only in gibberish or squawks.

Little Duck had lots to say,/but the words wouldn’t come out right!/So all he said was ‘QUACK, QUACK,QUACK’/all morning, noon and night.

Mother Duck deliberately uses the wrong name for a food Little Duck loves as “Quackers.” The little guy knows that isn’t right and says “CRRRACKERS.” Soon, “he talked and talked and talked, until he dropped.”

The first edition of “Say What..” was independently published and is in 30 bookstores. Soon after it was published, a traditional publisher asked to do a special edition for dyslexic children. Although the publisher went out of business, they helped the author create a dyslexic-inclusive edition that uses a font that makes it easier for people with the condition to be more successful in reading.

Every child can enjoy this book, enlivened with funny pictures such as the cover illustration in which Mother Duck, wearing goggles and earphones, is flapping away with Little Duck on her back also wearing goggles and a backpack.

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