Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book review: "Lucky Breaks," by Susan Patron

Lucky Breaks (2009)
by Susan Patron
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year for the first time at writing 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. This is the 2009 sequel to Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2006 Newbery Award (and which I've already reviewed in the past), around 40,000 words total and best suited in my opinion for ages ten to thirteen; and it's unfortunately also a good example of why sequels to character-oriented middle-school fiction are so rarely written, and why the key to a good chapter-book series always lies in the events that take place, not the people they happen to. Because the fact is that most of the charm of the original Higher Power resided in the natural pathos that came with our hardscrabble ten-year-old hero, Lucky -- in the first book she is dealing with the recent death of her mom, a deadbeat dad who wants nothing to do with her, the post-industrial California ghost town full of Unabomber types where she lives, the stresses of a flighty young French woman who has been thrust into the role of her guardian as an emergency stopgap measure, and a lot more, the uniqueness of all which is what mainly drives the slow and subtle plot on display. But in good kid-lit fashion, of course, all these issues are resolved by the end of that book; so there's not much pathos left by the start of the sequel, leaving its similar subtle plot this time very much lacking in the eyes of the typical reader.

Also, many of the issues from the original that were only borderline problems here tip over firmly into the legitimately problematic; for example, Patron has a bad habit of putting overly precocious, overly magical dialogue in the mouths of her kid characters, which she would always manage to rein in at the last second in the original but here she lets flow forth way too much at several points. (And make no mistake, by replacing the male best friend in the original with a new female best friend here, Patron definitively makes this a book that will appeal to girl readers exclusively.) By the end, then, the whole thing reads less like an actual kid-lit book and more like the kind of precious thing that many parents wish that kid-lit was like, which explains why this has been far less popular than the original Higher Power. A shame to see, because I really am quite a fan of the first book, but also a good lesson learned, that kid-lit multiple-book series are mostly driven by action and not character.

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