Category Archives: Children

Korea

Mark,

Obviously, we’ve let the blog go of late. Between my stint on Excellence in Nonfiction and yours on PPYA as well as AB4T, plus the usual work and family obligations (not to mention my broken arm), the blog has fallen to the bottom of the priority heap.

But it seems to me that it will be a good place for me to share some impressions from my trip to Korea for the 8th International Symposium on Library Services for Children and Young Adults.

I’m actually still in Korea (I’m leaving in a few hours), so I’m not going to do a full post now, but stay tuned for some posts in the upcoming week, and meanwhile, here’s a picture of the Korean translation of my book on YALSA’s competencies.
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–Mom

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Concluded

Mark,

Z for Zachariah was Robert C. O’Brien’s fourth and final novel. He died before finishing it, and his wife and daughter completed the last few chapters from his notes. This book, of all his novels, deals head-on with what O’Brien referred to as his concern about “the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself.”

zach2

The plot is quite simple: a nuclear war has destroyed everything. Sixteen-year-old Ann Burden is living alone in a secluded valley that has somehow escaped the radiation. The only explanation given is that the valley has always “had its own weather.”

Ann’s parents and family left the family farm one day to see how the neighboring Amish families had survived the war, and they never returned. Ann has been living on her own for some months, raising chickens, caring for the cows, planing crops, and just getting through the days. But now someone is coming. She sees the smoke first, and watches the progress of whoever it is as he approaches the farm.

When he appears, it is a man wearing a radiation suit. Ann very prudently hides herself in a cave and observes for some time, but when the man bathes in a radiation-poisoned stream and becomes ill, she ventures down to care for him.

The man, whose name is Loomis, is a scientist (ofcourse he is!). He is a chemist from Cornell who had been doing research on plastics and polymers for a government-funded project in the hills outside of Ithaca. His job was to help create a safe-suit, as well as other things like water and air filters, that would allow soldiers to continue to function in areas that had been atom-bombed. (See, didn’t I say that O’Brien had kind of a Cold War fixation?)

Anyway, Loomis has the prototype suit and all the other apparatus, which has enabled him to walk from Ithaca to Ann’s valley. He does get quite sick with radiation sickness for a time, but eventually recovers.

Once she is over her initial skittishness, Ann is delighted to have Loomis around. He has helpful suggestions–such as how she can get gas for the tractor, thus enabling her to plow a much larger garden patch–and Ann begins to imagine that there might be a future for them together.

But there is a dark side, too. When he is sick and delirious, she learns that there was another man with him in the cave outside Ithaca, and that the other man had been attempting to leave, wearing the safe-suit. Loomis shot him. This fits with what Ann has discovered about Loomis–that he is very protective of the suit, and also very controlling.zach1

The more he recovers from his illness, the more controlling he gets, until eventually Ann realizes that if she stays in the house, she will effectively be his prisoner, so she hides out in the cave. But even that is not enough, and Loomis clearly intends to find her. He stalks her, and even succeeds in shooting her in the leg. Then Ann has a moment of clarity:

“And I suddenly realized that he was not trying to miss. He wanted to shoot me in the leg so I could not walk. He wanted to maim, not to kill me. So that he could catch me. It was a simple plan, a terrible one. Starvation would force me to come to the house or the store. And the gun would keep me from going away again. And I knew he would try until he succeeded.”

Ann concludes that there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence, and she knows that Loomis will not leave the valley. So she decides that her only option is to leave the valley herself. And to do that, she will need to steal the safe-suit. She knows that Loomis will shoot her if he has the chance, but she is determined, and she succeeds. She has a final showdown with Loomis after she steals the suit, telling him, “I don’t want to live with you hunting me as if I were an animal, and I will never agree to be your prisoner.” He begs her not to leave him alone, but she reminds him, “You have food. You have the tractor and the store. You have the valley.”

The last words in the book are: “As I walk, I search the horizon for a trace of green. I am hopeful.”

So again, we have O’Brien tempering his pessimism about what people can and will do with hope.

Of the four novels, this is the only one written in first person, in the form of journal entries. I think he does a pretty good job with Ann’s voice, mixing a kind of country competence with naivete. It lends a real immediacy to the narrative, especially when Ann is on the run from Loomis, and when she is planning her escape from the valley.

As a bad guy, Loomis falls somewhere between Dr. Schutz of Group 17 and Dr. Schultz of Mrs. Frisby. We actually feel a bit sorry for him, wandering the country looking for other survivors in the only existing safe-suit, but at the same time, he is overbearing, and has no idea of how to live in this new world. When Ann suggests, at one point, that she could wear the safe-suit and walk to a nearby town for books at the library, he gets violently upset with her, ordering her never to touch the suit.  He has no interest in Ann, except as someone who can possibly help him, with her knowledge of farming. He rarely makes an effort to talk to her, or to find out anything about her, but at the same time, he doesn’t want her to have a separate life. He’s not actually evil, although he’s certainly ruthless.

Ann, like O’Brien’s other protagonists, is smart, resourceful, and thoughtful.

My final summing-up of O’Brien’s book would be this, using your categories:

Masterpiece:  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  Of course. This is just a great book that works on so many levels.

Minor MasterpieceZ for Zachariah.

Must-Read: The Silver Crown.

For Fans: A Report from Group 17.

And one final note: O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to Mrs. Frisby. They are Racso and the Rats of NIMH, and R.T., Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH. Both owe much more to the Don Bluth movie version than to the original book. Both are pale imitations of O’Brien’s masterpiece, and I’m relieved that Conly stopped after the second book and started writing her own books, which were much better. Among other issues I have with the so-called sequels was the way in which she tried to wrap up all the loose ends that O’Brien left in Mrs. Frisby, such as which rats had died in the rose bush, and how things had worked out in Thorn Valley. As you know, I don’t have any problems with a little ambiguity, but Conly seemed to want to beat every horse until it was fully dead.

Okay, that’s it for my first try at a Completist post. I know you’re off at the Eureka Leadership thing this week, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, since I know you’ve read at least three of these books.

– Mom

P.S. One more side note: there is a movie of Z for Zachariah starring Chris Pine as Loomis that has just finished filming in New Zealand. It will be out later this year or sometime next year.

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 2

Mark,

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is, as you know, probably my favorite children’s book of all time. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have read it, read it aloud, and listened to it. And every time, it gets me. I get incredibly caught up in the dual stories–the story of Mrs. Frisby and her children and their need to have their home saved from destruction by the plow, and the story of the rats, their captivity in NIMH, their escape, and their plans for the future.Frisby

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of “talking animal” books, but this one is an exception. And I think it is an exception because O’Brien makes it as realistic as he possibly can. In contrast to the movie made from the book, and also to the book’s sequels, which were written by O’Brien’s daughter, O’Brien’s rats, mice, and birds do not wear clothes or look in any way different from ordinary animals. You just have to have this one suspension of disbelief: that the rats were given injections of some substance that made them super-intelligent and super-long-lived. That one fact leads to everything else that happens in the book. Continue reading

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The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 1

Mark,

I’ve never done a Completist post before, but I just recently re-read all four of Robert C. O’Brien’s novels, and decided I would try my hand at this.

O’Brien is primarily–and deservedly–known for his Newbery Award-winning middle grade novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  His next most well-known book is the YA novel, Z for Zachariah (1975), a BBYA selection that was published posthumously. He did, however, write two other novels, a middle-grade called The Silver Crown (1968) and an adult novel entitled A Report from Group 17 (1972), which was also a BBYA pick. The three children’s/YA books are still in print, but Group 17 is long out of print, and even vanishing from libraries (so I was quite clever to have bought a copy many years ago).

All four novels are on the surface very different, but they have some common themes and threads that really stood out to me when I recently re-read them all. Continue reading

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YMA Reactions

Mom,

What are your reactions to the announcements of the ALA Youth Media Awards?

My primary reaction was happy surprise at the Newbery Award going to Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. To be honest, I have not been a huge fan of Kate DiCamillo – I think The Tale of Despereaux is a fine book, but not necessarily a Newbery-level one. And Because of Winn Dixie I can take or leave, although it too is a perfectly good book. But I was really enthusiastic about Flora & Ulysses (as I was about most of the ampersand titles of the year). And I’m always happy to have a comedy win.

You know my thoughts on the Printz Winner, Midwinterblood. On the one hand, I think it is great that the committee honored such a daring and inventive book–it certainly is more interesting than 95% of the YA literature out there. On the other hand, as you know I think Sedgwick was less than successful in his daring. So there’s that. Also, I stand by my (and your) position on Printz Honor Maggot Moon – it’s just really not very good.

But what I’d really like to talk about (or rather have you talk about) is the Edwards Award.  You have been very vocal (at least to me) about your love of Markus Zusak’s earlier work – I think you’ve called it his Aussie-slacker novels. Which appears to be what the committee awarded. I’ve read I Am the Messenger, and of course The Book Thief, but not the other two named titles: Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl. So what do you think?

– Mark

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Sarah’s 2013

Mark,

I was just working on my own stats when I saw your post. I’m humbled by your prowess!

I read 127 books in 2013, which is a pretty typical year for me.

The breakdowns:

74 YA and children’s books–mostly YA; 53 Adult books.

35 by male authors; 92 by female authors.

111 fiction; 16 nonfiction.

86 were published in 2013 or 2014.

I only read a couple of graphic novels–one fiction, one nonfiction, and one poetry collection, which I lumped in with nonfiction.
Favorites:

I want to start by mentioning a book I read at the end of 2012 and reviewed for AB4T: Eight Girls Taking Pictures, By Whitney Otto. I read it too late in the year to nominate it for the best of the year list, and in any case, I think it has limited (though real) teen appeal. But this book has been my reader’s advisory triumph of 2013. I recommended it to four different women (including your wife), and each one of them came back to me afterwards to tell me how much they had loved the book and how much it meant to them. Considering how much reader’s advisory we all do with no feedback whatsoever, that’s obviously a success! What was intriguing to me was how each reader noticed and commented on different aspects of the book: father/daughter relationships, mother/child relationships, art/life, career/family, and more.

This year, I read my first Maisie Dobbs book, by Jacqueline Winspear. I know Maisie Dobbs was an Alex winner back when it was new (10 years ago) but I hadn’t read any of the books until this year, when I read the first five.  I also went back and read some of Kate Atkinson’s earlier books in the Jackson Brodie series: Case Histories and Started Early, Took My Dog.  I’m planning to read more of both series.

I also indulged myself by listening to Jim Dale’s masterful productions of all seven Harry Potter books . Thanks to my library’s Overdrive subscription, they were my near-constant companions for a couple of months this fall, while I was knitting some rather large Christmas gifts! It was really pretty fascinating to listen to all seven books in a row, and see the connections.

I feel like I’m way behind on reading Printz-worthy books, and I didn’t really push myself too much this year.  Books that are still rattling around in my brain months later include Black Helicopters  (Woolston),  Yellowcake  (Lanagan), Charm and Strange (Kuehn), Picture Me Gone (Rosoff), and September Girls (Madison).

Books I don’t think have a chance at the Printz but that I personally loved included Just One Year (Forman), The Beginning of Everything (Schneider), and Fangirl (Rowell).

Books we’ll want to talk about in 2014 include Laurie Halse Anderson’s upcoming The Impossible Knife of Memory, and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars.

I see I didn’t read much science fiction or fantasy this year.

And, as always, I wish I had read more nonfiction, although percentage-wise, it’s a pretty typical amount: 12.5% of my reading. I anticipate correcting that in 2014, when I will be on YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults committee. (Of course, although I’ll be reading plenty of YA nonfiction, I won’t be discussing it here.)

– Mom

 

 

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2013 Wrap Up

Mom,

We did this last year, so I thought we’d do it again. In last year’s post I said: “Next year will in all likelihood be back down in the 100s, for my own and my wife’s sanity.” That . . . didn’t happen.

Statistics

Books Read: 279

Gender Breakdown:

  • Female authors: 141
  • Male Authors: 132
  • Both male and female authors: 6

Genre Breakdowns

  • Fiction: 220
  • Nonfiction: 59
  • GNs: 32
  • Poetry: 7
  • Short Story Collections: 7
  • Plays: 6

Age Breadown

  • Adult: 138
  • YA: 83
  • Children’s: 58

Books Published in 2013 or 2014: 178

Favorites

I feel like I’ve talked endlessly about my favorite Adult Books 4 Teens, teen books, and children’s books, so in lieu of listing overlapping favorites, I’m going to leave this year by briefly mentioning my favorite books that I wasn’t able to discuss, generally because they were adult books without teen appeal, were published prior to 2013, or both.

1. The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noemi Szecsi. A brilliant adult book with absolutely no teen appeal, more about language and Hungarian culture than vampires. Hilarious.

2. Between My Father and the King by Janet Frame. Previously uncollected and unpublished short stories by New Zealand’s greatest writer. Unpublished stuff unusually stays unpublished for a reason, but not in this case–these are amazing stories.

3. Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law by Joe Mazzone. One of my favorite pet issues–which I did get to discuss in the context of Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone. IP is arcane and difficult, but utterly crucial for all of us living in the digital world to understand.

4. Mr. Posterior and the Genius Child by Emily Jenkins. Jenkins/Lockhart’s sole adult book is just as good as anything she’s done for teens and children.

5. The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner. The story of the creation of Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary. No seriously, it’s fascinating.

6. Tenderness, Heroes, and Tunes for Bears to Dance To by Robert Cormier. I went on a little Cormier kick in October which confirmed for me that he remains one of the towering greats of YA literature.

7. Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare by Paul Werstine. Throughout most of the 20th Century, editors based their editions of Shakespeare on a set of assumptions about the way plays were transferred from the author to the playhouse to the printing house. These assumptions turn out to be almost entirely baseless when you look at the actual manuscripts which we still have access to. Werstine does look at them, and demolishes most of 20th Century editing in the process.

8. A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry. Lowry’s first novel. I was stunned at how much of her greatness was already apparent.

9. Revolutionary Summer The Birth of American Independence
by Joseph J. Ellis. A history of the summer of 1776, looking at the parallel’s between Washington’s military battles and Jefferson and Adams’s political ones.

10. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno. A decidely minor, but nonetheless engrossing, postmodern detective story.

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Grimm tales

Mark,

As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:

“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)

Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s)  immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.

In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole  point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.

I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.

Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.

So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?

– Mom

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Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

Mom,

A few weeks ago, you were talking about Liesl Shurtliff’s new novel Rump and you made some comments about “Rumpelstiltskin” that I wanted to comment on, but I had planned on reading Rump first to make my comments more relevant. Now, with my to-read pile getting precariously high, I find that I’m abandoning the idea of reading Rump, but I still want to address the fairy tale, so, since this is our blog and we can talk about whatever we want, here are some thoughts on not a new novel, but a very old story.

First, here’s what you had to say:

I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

And on a similar note, Michael Gruber, whose The Witch’s Boy you mentioned as among the recent adaptations of the tale, said this:

“Rumpelstiltskin” is the only major fairy tale in the canon that does not have a “good” protagonist, a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces. The king in the tale is a cruel miser, the miller is a venal con man, the miller’s daughter is an airhead and a liar, and the eponymous little man is the villain of the piece.

Obviously you and Gruber have picked up on something similar, so there must be something there, but I have to say that I find this interpretation exceedingly strange. Let’s look at the charges you and Gruber make against the Miller’s Daughter:

  • she’s a whiner
  • she’s lazy
  • she’s entitled
  • she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold
  • she’s an airhead
  • she’s a liar

A number of these are simply incorrect. The Miller’s Daughter is not “a liar” in any traditional sense. She never claims to be able to spin straw into gold–that’s her father.  And if Gruber had in mind that she goes back on her word to Rumpelstiltskin, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I also see no evidence that she is “an airhead”, or “entitled.” If you see something I’m not, let me know.

I’m having trouble with her being “a whiner” as well.  Here’s the crucial piece, in the 1857 Grimm version:

When the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was entirely filled with straw. Giving her a spinning wheel and a reel, he said, “Get to work now. Spin all night, and if by morning you have not spun this straw into gold, then you will have to die.” Then he himself locked the room, and she was there all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for her life she did not know what to do. She had no idea how to spin straw into gold. She became more and more afraid, and finally began to cry.

Um – who wouldn’t cry in this situation? Or beg anyone who came along to help.

Which brings us to the next point.  I would argue that she does not “agree[] to give away her child for the sake of some gold”–she agrees to give away her child in exchange for her life.  It is true that on the third night the king omits the threat of death, but I would argue that the death threat is still implied. My evidence is in the original 1812 edition of Grimm–when Rumpelstiltskin makes his bargain, the narrator says “In her distress she made the promise”.  What is “her distress” if not fear for her life? Certainly, it is not her lust for gold or the king that causes her to make the deal.  If it makes a difference, the classic 1857 version is similar: “‘Who knows what will happen,’ thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded.” I grant that “who knows what will happen” is a little glib, but “not knowing what else to do” is pretty clear that she is in desperate straits.

My main argument in this first half of the tale is that the situation for the Miller’s Daughter is impossible–she is passed off like a piece of property from one man (her father) to another (the king), and then threatened with death for something that she cannot possibly do.  So she makes a series of promises to Rumpelstiltskin to save her life.  I would say that qualifies as “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.”

Then we get to the second half of the tale, in which Rumpelstiltskin returns to collect his half of the deal.  Here, the Miller’s Daughter shows even more gumption. Gruber might think going back on her word makes her a liar, but I would say 1) her word was given under duress, and 2) being a liar is better than being a monster.  And again we see that she is not greedy or entitled in the least. Confronted with the idea of giving up her child, she is horrified and “beg[s] him to let her keep the child, offering him great riches in its place” (in the 1812 version), or even more poignantly in the 1857, “The queen took fright and offered the little man all the wealth of the kingdom if he would let her keep the child.” Finally, though she doesn’t do it herself, she certainly initiates the intense, kingdom-wide search for the man’s name, rather than meekly allowing him to take her child.

So, again, we have a character confronted with an impossible situation who convinces the antagonist to take pity on her, then uses that small advantage to win the day.

I know this is all very academic, but I find it worth going over precisely because the interpretation(s) of fairy tales are so important to so much contemporary literature. Frankly, as much as I love The Witch’s Boy, I find Gruber’s attitude towards the Miller’s Daughter (which shows up in the novel as well) to mar the story and give far too much sympathy to a character who is in fact preying on a helpless girl in a terrible situation. As I said, I very much doubt I’ll be getting to Rump any time soon, so I don’t know if this post has any relevance for that novel, but let me know what you think of my interpretation.

– Mark

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Hokey Pokey

Mom,

Have you read Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli yet?  It’s been getting some of the biggest middle grade buzz of the year, and if my memory serves I actually had an e-galley of it on my computer at the end of last year or the very beginning of this one, but never got around to reading it.  Now, as you know, I have starting biking to work and California law allows me to have an earphone in one ear while I bike, so I figured I’d listen to audiobooks, and I picked up Hokey Pokey (which turns out to be an incredibly appropriate book for listening to on a bike).

hokey pokeyThe conventional wisdom seems to be that this is a book that people either love or hate, which I suppose I can see, but while I definitely didn’t love it, I didn’t really hate it either.  Rather, I just found it kind of disappointing and average.

So, the set-up, in case if you don’t know, is that Hokey Pokey is a magical land populated entirely by kids, from infants to tweens. The spend their time biking, playing ball, waiting for the Hokey Pokey man (a kind of sno-cone treat), etc.  The plot revolves around Jack, who wakes up one day to find that his bike has been stolen by a girl, Jubilee.  Jack and his “amigos,” LaJo and Dusty go looking for the bike, and Jack gradually begins to realize that this day is a pivotal one for him, and he is probably going to be leaving Hokey Pokey–no one understands what that means, but the reader of course knows it means growing up.

Now, there is a ton to love about this book, starting with the characters.  Jubilee, in particular, is well drawn.  All three amigos are fabulous, as are a whole host of side characters.  The style of the book starts out somewhat confusing (although I think we can dispense with the Joyce comparisons, which have been abundant–there is nothing formally path-breaking about the writing; it’s just a bit breathless and, as I said confusing. Nothing at all like the mind-expanding wordplay of Joyce), but as the reader adjusts it becomes quite fun.  The world building is pretty good too.

The problems lie deeply in the themes.  My goodreads review was snarky, but (imho) on point:

“Quick: how does a book about a world in which there are only children end?
If you answered, someone grows up, congratulations! You’re as original as Jerry Spinelli.”

I mean, come on–of course it’s about growing up. What else could it be about? But what’s the point of any of it?  Everyone grows up?  Um, yeah. It’s especially troubling because no one in Hokey Pokey has any conception of the adult world, and therefore what growing up entails.  So “growing up” is just a magical event that happens to Jack (and presumably other characters) at some unknown moment. Now, maybe that’s how some people experience it, but for me, growing up was something that was a constant dialectic.  I saw adults and ached to be like them at the same time that I wanted to keep being a kid.  And there was no magical day when I realized I was grown up (maybe I’m not yet?). It was a gradual process of learning more about the world, maturing physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  The metaphor of being suddenly, inexplicably plucked out of childhood really makes no sense to me.  I mean, Jack is a boy on the cusp of teenhood who has never had any sort of sexual/emotional reaction to girls (or boys) until the day the story takes place.  Again, I don’t know about other people, but that’s not how my childhood world worked.

Then there is the ending. After Jack leaves Hokey Pokey, he wakes up in the real world, where he has apparently lived all the time, excited that this is the day that he gets to re-paint his room and not be a kid anymore.  So, 1) Hokey Pokey is just a dream/fantasy/whatever, which (for me) completely undercuts the whole thing, and 2) Jack actually did want to grow up the whole time.  Maybe this is Spinelli’s way of getting at that dialectic I was discussing above, but it doesn’t feel that way–it feels like Jack is just two completely different characters, one in Hokey Pokey and one in the real world.  There is no conflict within either character, no going back and forth between wanting and not wanting to grow up.

I have much, much more to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to be coherent in my thoughts – there’s too much.  Which is to Spinelli’s credit to some degree. He certainly went to a lot of work.  But I’ve been spending the day today reading reviews on goodreads (especially Monica Edinger’s, Betsy Bird’s, and Rachael Stein’s) and I find myself completely unmoved by all of the points they make in the book’s favor, even the ones with which I nominally agree.

So – have you read it?  What do you think?

– Mark

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