Tag Archives: Maureen Johnson

Road Trip Down Memory Lane

This isn’t a full post as much as it is a few quick updates about what I’ve been/will be up to. I’ll be participating again this month in the discussion over at Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club for Laurie Halse Anderson’s new book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, so I’ll probably be cross-posting some of my thoughts on that in the upcoming weeks.

In other news, some six months later, I’ve finally put together a video of  the cross-country trip my mom, sisters, and I made this summer. This is totally unbook-related, but it’s one of my creative projects I wanted to share, so here it is.

And because this wouldn’t be BookEndeavors without at least SOME books, I just want to give a shout-out to a few of my favorite books that include road trips (but aren’t necessarily road trip books).

1. Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta – Now this, might not strike most people as a road trip book. Almost the entire story takes place at a state boarding school in rural Australia. But the book starts with a road trip, and it ends with one.

It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La. We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away, because I wanted to see the ocean and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey. I remember asking, ‘What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?’ and my father said, ‘Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand,’ and that was the last thing he ever said.”

2. The Key to the Golden Firebird, by Maureen Johnson – Again, not strictly a road trip book. But that’s perhaps the scene in the book that truly draws all three of the sisters in the novel back together, gives them a chance to be giddy and honest and unabashedly weird. Plus the book revolves around a car, so there’s that. I wrote a full review for this book a while back, which can be found here.

The funny thing about stop signs is that they’re also start signs.

3. Saving June, by Hannah Harrington – Now, this one is a true road trip book. After her sister June’s suicide, Harper and her best friend take off to visit California, the place Harper knew her sister always dreamed of going. I’ve always enjoyed books about grief after the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s my way of preparing for the worst; or maybe it’s that in those books, the protagonists are usually already near rock bottom at the book’s outset, so I don’t feel like I spend half the book waiting for the other shoe to drop. At any rate, I thought this book had it all – justified angst, character development, plot, and of, course the kind of music necessary for any road trip, fictional or otherwise.

Some people think that a place can save them… Like if they could just be somewhere else, their lives would be totally different. They could finally be the people they always wanted to be. But to me, a place is just a place. If you really want things to change, you can make them change no matter where you are.

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“The Key to the Golden Firebird,” by Maureen Johnson

Last week, I wrote an entry about a trip to a book event in Syracuse. I’m currently on another, much further trip – Philadelphia! I came to the city for an honors conference, not a literary endeavor. Nevertheless, as we chugged along on the highway in our extremely large, rented black van, passing skyscrapers and buildings so ornate they must be Historical, I was reminded of one of my favorite young adult novels: Maureen Johnson’s The Key to the Golden Firebird.

Maureen Johnson’s twitter profile… and a sample of her kind of humor.

In the world of young adult literature, Maureen Johnson’s name is more or less synonymous with “superstar.” Aside from having published ten novels, she has an abundant online presence. She’s particularly well-known for her offbeat tweets. I first discovered her work, however, long before she became an Internet sensation, probably before she had a twitter account. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I pulled The Key to the Golden Firebird off the shelf of my local library. I didn’t know that a Firebird was a car, or that the novel was set in Philadelphia. I picked it up because of its bright yellow and pink cover.

The Key to the Golden Firebird mainly follows May Gold, the sixteen-year-old middle child in the family of three girls. May’s father dies of a sudden heart attack at the beginning of the novel. The story then jumps to a year later, and explores the different ways the Gold sisters cope with the loss. May’s mom works over-time at the hospital to help pay the bills, leaving May and her two sisters to fend for themselves. Brooks, the oldest of the family, quits softball and starts hanging out with a different, more booze-fueled crowd. Palmer, the baby of the family, tries to distract herself with softball practice and television. May – the bookish, unathletic sister – to try to hold things together.

And then there’s Pete Camp. A long-time family friend, he and May have always been… well, less than friendly. Good-natured – and perhaps less well-natured – pranks once drove the relationship between the two. When May fails her driving test – an experience to which I personally relate – Pete ends up being the only one around to teach her. The two attempt to put aside their differences for the sake of May’s driver license. In one notable scene, Pete tries to take May driving on one of Philadelphia’s highway. It was this scene that reminded me today, as our professor wove through the mess of last-minute lane-changing cars, that reminded me of the novel.

Photo of Philadelphia as seen from the highway in our enormous black rental van. Photo taken by Paige Belisle.

I think what really made this book was the characterization. Although the book focused around May, the narration sometimes shifted to her sisters, Brooks and Palmer. Each girl had their own individual ways of dealing with their father’s death. And for a book about death, it stays remarkably, refreshingly free of clichés and cheesiness. The bonding between the sisters didn’t take place in the form of hugs and shared cups of coffee; instead, their connection shone through in a road-trip convenience store stop and a wild dash off the field at Camden Yards.

To address the YA elephant in the room – yes, there is some romance in the novel. I think Johnson does an excellent job of balancing the love interest aspect of the story with the sisters’ relationships and development. For May, her growing interest in a guy feels natural; instead of distracting from the other themes of the story, it reinforces the idea that May needs to learn to live her own life; as much as she loves her sisters, it’s not up to her to be responsible for them.

This book came out quite awhile ago, but it’s one I still like revisit quite often. What rereads do you still enjoy years later? Any books you stumbled upon a bit by accident and ended up loving? Let me know in comments.

Maureen Johnson’s Website
Maureen Johnson’s Twitter
The Key to the Golden Firebird on GoodReads


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