Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book review: "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky (2006)
Susan Patron
Richard Jackson / Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

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 all the books that have won the Newbery Award in the last ten years, although I've been warned that there is sometimes a strong disconnect between such books and what the actual book-buying public really wants. This was the 2006 winner, which reminded me a lot of the '70s Judy Blume / Betsy Byars stuff I myself grew up on -- complex character dramas featuring significantly flawed heroes, that is, and with a strong sense of melancholy throughout. It's the story of ten-year-old Lucky, a strange and slightly arrogant girl living in a dying, post-boom Industrial town in southern California, almost comical in its post-apocalyptic surrealism; the story consists of us simply watching her life for awhile, as among other things she contends with the flighty young French woman who has through bizarre means become her legal guardian, the lonely five-year-old neighbor who constantly trails her like a shadow, and her growing confusion over what exactly she's supposed to do with the ashes of her mother, who died in a recent accident that Lucky blames herself for. The book is around 30,000 words total, and is best in my opinion for older grade-schoolers and younger middle-schoolers.

Here are the main things I took away from this book, as far as the struggle to become a better children's writer myself...

-Patron uses a series of clever devices to get rid of nearly all the adult authority figures, which of course almost all kids love seeing in their favorite literature; the mom dies at the beginning, and the deadbeat dad wants nothing to do with her, convincing his first ex-wife instead to come in and clean up the mess, the flighty young French woman already mentioned, whose life was kind of a trainwreck back in Paris and so didn't have much to lose. And by setting this in a comically post-apocalyptic Industrial ghost town, it gives Patron the perfect excuse to make all the rest of the adults either mentally ill, fried-out hippies, or hermit Unabomber weirdoes. And speaking of which, making Lucky's guardian a flighty young French woman injects a lot of quirky, original humor into what's usually a boilerplate-type character in books like these. They are all inventive ways to stick to age-old kid-lit conventions.

--I like how Lucky is a significantly flawed character who makes plenty of mistakes, an overly curious slight know-it-all who I imagine mirrors many of her real-life fans. It not only brings extra complexity to the story (highly needed in a character drama during these "all vampire, all the time" days), and makes her more easily relatable, but also teaches kids that even when you sometimes mess up, it's still possible to pick up the pieces and keep trudging on. That said, there's also a precocious side to Lucky that I kept thinking just has to make actual kid readers roll their eyes, but that is the very kind of parent-friendly detail that won it the Newbery in the first place. For example, look at the overly cutesy situation that inspires the book's title, the fact that Lucky secretly listens in on the town's 12-step meetings, and has incorrectly surmised that a "higher power" is a literal object that one can acquire, and becomes convinced that it's just what she needs to sort through her mess of a life these days. I can already hear the anguished cries by 12-year-old readers nationwide of "whatEVER," even as the parents fawn at such a concept.

--And finally, how dark is too dark for middle-graders? There's as many different answers as there are people answering it, and it's of course a topic that Patron toys with here too; after all, this is the book that infamously starts on page one with a dog being bitten by a rattlesnake in the scrotum, and Patron actually using the word "scrotum." It was interesting to read a book like this that actually got published and did well for itself; I kept imagining it as one of those manuscripts that gets passed around the industry unsigned for years, until finally the exact right editor comes along who says, "You know, this could very well win next year's Newbery."

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