Wednesday, August 6


by Ingrid Law
Dial / Penguin 2008


It has taken me days to try and sort out what bothers me about this book. I think it's the mixture of pseudo-magical realism and corn-pone storytelling. The narrator won't shut up, isn't very bright (none of the kids in this story are), and is the mouthpiece for the author's ham-fisted "everybody is special in their own way" message.

On their thirteenth birthdays the Beaumont's receive their "savvy," that special something they possess that no one else does. For Mibs, on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the question is what form will her savvy take. Will it be the the quiet kind, like her mother's ability to do everything perfectly, or like her grandmother's ability to capture radio waves in mason jars like lightning bugs? Or will it be like her brother's, one who can harness electricity and another who creates hurricanes whenever he's near a large body of water?

Sadly, Mibs birthday plans are interrupted when the author decides to drop an obstacle in Mibs path: her father is involved in an accident on the highway and is laid up in a hospital to the south. Convinced by the lamest of evidence that her savvy involves "waking" objects previously believed to be permanently inert, Mibs in convinced she can bring her daddy out of his coma. But how to get to the hospital when she's been left behind by her mother?

That's right, stow away in the back of a traveling bible salesman's bus. And while you're at it, why not make it you and two of your sibling. And a couple of preacher's kids. Got it? That's five kids who think it's a good idea to stow away on a stranger's bus. The fact that he's a bible salesman is supposed to make you feel safe about it all.

Once they discover they're headed the wrong direction they prevail upon said salesman to deliver them where they need to go. He agrees that he can take them there eventually, but has his stops to make first.

Yeah, I've got a vehicle full of stowaways and I think I'll just drive around with them for a bit while they sort things out among themselves. No one's going to ask me down the road what the hell I was thinking, driving them around for days without anyone knowing...

Oh, and Mibs gets her savvy. And I have to ask: is this a metaphor for getting your period, or having ritual circumcision, or a bar mitzvah? Anyway, she gets it. Her savvy is being to hear what people are thinking but only through whatever ink happens to be on their skin. Even a temporary tattoo is able to speak to Mibs who figures this out several chapters after the reader has and is falling asleep.

I'm sorry, I can't seem to give a straight summary here.

Here's where you first lose me: The character's name is Mississippi but her younger sibling can't pronounce that and calls her Mibs. Okay. But that's what everyone calls her? She lets teachers and strangers and friends and enemies call her by her family name? No, I don't think so. But that's a quibble.

Next wrong fork in the road: stowing away on a stranger's bus to get someplace. Uh huh. You don't first admit knowing it's wrong, then try to lay a claim that you believe the driver to be safe, all the while exhibiting a failure to understand your own critical facilities. A history of bad judgment in a character shouldn't allow for safety to prevail at its most crucial point. Kids get into trouble all the time thinking they know enough to stay safe, make bad decisions, and trust people they shouldn't as a result. Here we have not one but FIVE kids who all fail to do the right thing, believing there's safety in numbers while they are on a bus headed in the wrong direction with no one knowing where they are.

Yeah, yeah, don't give me that stuff about the news bulletin on the TV throughout and the police looking for them. That's all after the fact (and worse, it is there to tie up a loose end concerning he paternity of one of the kids!). The fact is dumb kids + dumb decisions should not = positive results. We don't live in that world, and even if we lived in a world full of people with secret "savvies" it would strain credulity to believe that these are the actions of smart, savvy people.

Lastly (for now), if you want a main character to spout the curious homilies and expressions of a Southern Carl Sandburg at least make them sound like they're coming from a kid and not an old lady. Kids will incorporate the language they learn and know, but not with such abundance and variety as they do here. Yes I get that it supposed to take on the feel of a tall tale, all that language-of-the-people stuff, but it feels as wrong as shoulder pads on a t-shirt; it's a statement, but is that really the statement you want to make?

In a bit of backward glancing at all the people who loved this book, and all of those that didn't, I'm starting to get a sense that this book could be a new litmus test for determining whose judgment I can trust. I think there are a lot of people out there, many of them librarians, who would consider this prime Newbery material. Sadly. Probably the same ones who agreed with the Newbery committee over The Higher Power of Lucky. Savvy nabbed a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor recently. Let's hope it stops there.


I'm not going to burn in a place I don't believe in, but I'm sure my ass is going to get bit one day for this.

Tuesday, August 5


by Hope Larson
Atheneum 2008

Abby has arrived at camp first (as usual, due to her mother) and as the other girls arrive everyone slips back into their camp personalities and cliques. Abby's closest friend Rose has returned as a counselor this year and her additional duties preclude her and Abby from hanging out as much.

As the bunks fill in her cabin Abby ends up with new girl Deni beneath her who spends her day complaining about what a dump the camp is and her nights scratching herself into oblivion. The girls come back to their cabin and find Deni mysteriously gone, and quickly the rumor is she contracted chiggers and was sent home.

The next girl to fill the bunk is Shasta, a hippie-esque weirdo who refrains from many camp activities due to her own mysterious illness, a illness that requires a daily medication she refuses to take. While Abby has always been a sort of fifth wheel around her cabin mates, Shasta is the out-and-out weirdo, and when Abby is stuck showing the new camper around she finds herself battling between distancing her self from Shasta and making friends with her.

Shasta, it turns out, was struck by lightning and occasionally finds her hair raised on end and little balls of lightning drift into her cabin looking for her. There's tension between Abby and Shasta when they find themselves attracted to the same boy until Shasta is sent home for failure to take her medicine. Camp ends with a kiss and a bandanna and memories that make camp that place where strangers are friends for life until it's time to go home.

Larson's graphic novel pulls off the trick of being episodic without feeling episodic, telling the story of a summer without a plot. Abby, and all the girls for that matter, are mean and nice, conflicted and assured, friends and enemies. They are kids at that age where everything is possible which means they run hot and cold with the wind. Everything is possible at camp, and Larson picks out those moments that highlight those possibilities; the friendship bracelets, the games of capture the flag, the overnight hike with the ghost stories and a flashlight. None of it cliched or bathed in the patina of nostalgia or underscored with "deeper meaning" than the moment it exists in.

More like this, please.

Monday, August 4

My Dad's a Birdman

by David Almond
illustrations by Polly Dunbar
Candlewick 2008

Lizzie's a bright, independent girl who gets her self up in the morning, gets dressed, makes tea and toast, and calls her dad down to breakfast. But dad drags. Dad droops. And when asked what his plans are for the day while she's at school dad announces that he's going to fly like a bird and enter the human bird competition. Suddenly we are faced with a role reversal of a responsible parent-like child and a child-like parent. What would cause this reversal only becomes obvious by the lack, and no mention of, Lizzie's mother. This is made clear a few chapters in when Lizzie's Aunt Doreen drops by to see to how Lizzie and her dad are getting along. Once she sees that dad has fashioned a set of wings for himself and has taken to eating bugs (in order to be more bird-like), and that Lizzie has taken to staying home from school to watch after her dad it becomes painfully clear that we are dealing with a great unspoken grief.

In the end Lizzie and her dad participate together in the Great Human Bird Competition, a sort of flugtag where people adorn themselves in wings and rockets and whatnot and attempt to traverse a body of water propelled under their own power. Dad's obsession with flying at first seems a bi-product of a mental break-down, but as Lizzie (and eventually her Headmaster) discover as they participate in the competition, the act of faith necessary to hurl yourself into the world is exactly what they both need in order to move ahead with their lives. Feeling more alive than before, they reconnoiter back at Aunt Doreen's for some dumplings and find themselves dancing with a new-found joy, a joy that leaves them lighter than birds and flying off the ground.

Almond has managed to dip his pen into Roald Dahl's inkwell and produce a magnificent examination of what it means to find joy after loss, for a family to find their way through the other side of the darkness no matter how odd it may look on the outside. Aunt Doreen and the Headmaster understand the situation and are keeping tabs to make sure that Lizzie and her dad don't fall to far off track, but they hang back enough to let the process run its course.

The feel of this book is what gives it the Dahl flavor in my mind. It would be hard to imagine this story in a contemporary environment without meddling government agencies and relatives who would insist on remaining in the home to assure everything was alright. Aunt Doreen makes a social call but is driven from the house by the sheer absurdity of it all, promising to return with help. The help she return with isn't the police or child protective services but the school headmaster who is more interested in joining Lizzie and her dad in their adventure rather than find fault, place a judgment, or insist on a return to normalcy. It is also in the child as the responsible one and the adults as fools that I find the spectre of Dahl lurking.

Almond can't seem to get away from the connections he makes with birds and death, and certainly there's enough mythology, symbolism, and history to support these connections. But Almond chose the bird's ability to fly to show a rising above, a phoenix-like symbolism for a family being reborn from the ashes of their sorrow. There is nothing sad or sorrowful in the book itself, the entire affair has a sense of whimsy to it, but it's all there just below the surface allowing us to how happiness and joy can re-emerge from experience.

Friday, August 1

Big Plans

by Bob Shea
illustrated by Lane Smith
Hyperion 2008

He's got big plans! Big plans (he says)! Over and over and over...

Last year author Shea gave us some New Socks to play with, and they were good. Just the one image of that a chicken, with glasses, using a sock as a phone was enough for me. That's how kids are, that's how they play, I'm good. I think that for a certain age level picture books ought to try and capture that sense of childlike whimsy (claiming they're the biggest thing in the ocean, for example) and New Socks did it.

Shea's back, tugging illustrator Lane Smith for the ride, and things don't roll so smoothly. We start with a boy facing the corner of his classroom, obviously on punishment, the chalkboard full of all the "I will not's" he's most likely committed. From this single opening spread we learn that this boy rolls his eyes, schemes, laughs when others speak, isn't nice, proves the teacher wrong, considers himself the boss of the class, and announces that what he says goes.

I hate this kid.

I hate this kid so much that everything that follows better show me in some way that he is charming or in some other ways undeserving of this punishment in the corner, otherwise this book is really going to piss me off.

This book pissed me off.

He's got big plans, he announces, and he screams these words in 240 point type across most of the book. He's going to shout at the yes-men in the boardroom, take on the mayor, verbally assault the president. He's going to wear a skunk as a hat (because the only thing that stinks worse is this kid's attitude) and march all over the world shouting down everyone and everything else with his big plans. He's going to take over a losing football team (with his yes-man mynah bird) because losing is not part of his big plans. He'll order people to do this and that, and when he goes to the moon he'll order the rocks be moved so they can be read from Earth announcing his big plans.

And in the last spread we see that all his planning and scheming were a direct result of all the things surrounding him in the time out corner. There's a map of the moon and a book of presidents, and his snide little smirk that says "Yeah, they can put me in the corner, but I'll show them one day."

I never want that kid to leave the corner.

You know how it is when you get an email from someone who doesn't realize that writing in all caps reads like shouting? This book feels just like that, only worse. It's a bossy kid with a microphone hooked up to the Who's loudspeaker system shouting about his big plans at 160 decibels ten feet from your face. Did it have to be so loud, Lane? Couldn't the kid be less of a schmuck and more of a dreamer? Couldn't there be something in this kid that would make us want to root for him to take over the country and fly to the moon and be the star football player?

Not cute, not endearing, and please, let no one read this to boys at story hour unless they want an army of bossy boys shouting down adults and thinking they own the world, or a dozen time-out corners in need of occupants.