Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book review: "Bird Lake Moon," by Kevin Henkes

Bird Lake Moon (2008)
By Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow / HarperCollins

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process among other ways by first reading a stack of existing books that have been recommended to me. Kevin Henkes' Bird Lake Moon was recommended as a good example of books for older grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers (so roughly ages 10 to 13) that deal with dark material in a gentle yet realistic way; it's almost 40,000 words total, on the heavy side of such books, and also contains an expansive vocabulary that will be a pleasant challenge for younger readers. It's the story of two boys who one summer move next to each other in the sleepy Wisconsin cottage community of Bird Lake; one has a set of parents who are going through a divorce, which is why they've temporarily moved in with his mother's cantankerous grandparents, while the other has a brother who drowned at Bird Lake almost a decade ago, with this being the traumatized family's first trip back.

Things I took away from this book, as far as my own struggle to become a better children's writer...

--Although really well done, I can see here why people recommend so much that character-oriented novels for kids be loaded up with a lot of extra drama and unique events, with this book many times coming off as what I imagine is too subtle for many kids, and therefore with only a limited potential audience (although of course with that audience intensely passionate about the book, precisely for these reasons). Also, to reference my own reading habits as a kid, this book many times feels not like the best of someone like Judy Blume (where the characters create and drive the situations being played out) but more like her second-tier work, minor books like Deenie and Iggie's House where it feels like first an issue was picked ("I think I'll write a book about desegregation in the suburbs") and only then were characters created and a plotline written. Although I want to reiterate that Henkes does a great job with the material he's chosen here, just like adult literature these kinds of stories need to feel natural and not forced, which Henkes teeters just on the edge of many times.

--And speaking of all this, I thought Henkes treads a very fine line here as far as how dark is too dark for kids in the 10-to-13 range; this is one of the issues I find fascinating as an author, in that I imagine many of my own future kid's books will be dark in tone as well, and I'm trying to learn exactly where the balance is for the pre-YA crowd. I really loved for example that one of our heroes, Mitch, is in typical divorced-kid fashion acting out just all the time, in ways that are sometimes surprisingly destructive for a person who's supposed to be our protagonist; for example, as part of his ongoing secret campaign to convince his new neighbors to leave again, in the desperate hope that his own family could move in next-door so that his mom and grandparents will stop fighting all the time, he actually unchains their dog and lets it run away while the family is gone for the afternoon, in what could've easily led to the dog's death or permanent disappearance in the real world. The book is full of moments like these, uncomfortably real details of just how dysfunctional people can get in the middle of a divorce or the grieving of a dead child, a polarizing element that I imagine young readers will either intensely love or hate.

--And finally, I thought this book did a particularly great job at examining the subtle relationship between kids at different ages, which I'm told is a topic that's really loved by many child readers at this age; ten-year-old Mitch admires his neighbor Stewart for being twelve, Stewart admires Mitch back for his above-average athletic skills, while both have a begrudging tolerance only for their fairytale-spouting, costume-wearing chatterbox grade-school siblings. And I also think that Henkes does a great job at examining the heavily flawed parents that are around these kids, and how their only so-so dealings with these family dramas end up creating new legitimate hassles sometimes for the kids themselves; just to cite one good example, how Stewart's mother after a few days realizes that the cloud of her first son's death is hanging just too heavily over the entire environment for her comfort, even though the entire rest of the family has quite intensely fallen in love with being there by then. This is such a subtle thing in children's literature, the question of just how much of adult personalities and adult weaknesses one should add to the story in the first place -- because obviously most kids are at least a little fascinated with adult behavior, and especially when they get a chance to glance at truly adult reactions that they suspect they're not supposed to be seeing, although ultimately most kids prefer that the books they read be primarily about other kids, and of the ways those kids live their lives when the adults aren't around. I have a lot more to learn about the various ways that authors deal with this subject, and is something I always keep a close eye on whenever reading yet another character-oriented middle-school drama.

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