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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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