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.

Book review: "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," by Judy Blume

Then Again, Maybe I Won't (1971)
by Judy Blume
Yearling / RandomHouse

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 re-reading a selection of books I myself enjoyed as a kid, to see if I can figure out as an adult why I liked them so much. And being a child of the '70s, of course my favorite author during my own youth was Judy Blume; and 1971's Then Again, Maybe I Won't was my second-favorite of all her books back then, known among my childhood friends as the male equivalent of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (my number-one favorite Blume title), in that it was the book that middle-school girls read to get an idea of what was going through the minds of middle-school boys, while Margaret served the exact opposite function. And indeed, reading through it this week for the first time as an adult, I was surprised to see how the vast majority of the book actually deals with the class struggles that come from a poorer Italian family in urban New Jersey who suddenly become an upper-middle-class family in suburban Long Island, due to a McGuffin-like invention by the family's patriarch; because as many of you can guess, about the only thing I remembered anymore about the book, 30 years after I first read it, is its frank portrayal of pubescent sexuality, which as an adult I now realize is a subject that confines itself to literally only four or five pages of this entire manuscript. And this was the power of Blume's work in the '70s, I suppose, that it tackled head-on the kinds of messy yet very real issues that confront most 10- to 13-year-olds, in a candid way that kids ate up back then but that made her controversial among adults; it's a tradition that I realize now as an adult started with JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and that paved the way for such contemporary YA masters as John Green and Sarah Dessen.

In fact, one of the biggest things I take away from this book as an adult is just how much I craved flawed characters as a kid, heroes who made plenty of mistakes and sometimes had less-than-stellar personalities, such a change from the perfect little sweethearts that dominated children's literature before the countercultural '60s; and I suppose this is why I was drawn so much to character-based dramas in general during those years, although it should be noted that I was as much a fan of various action-oriented books in those same years, such as the Narnia series and the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries (several of which I'll also be re-reading for eventual critical inspection here). What I learned as a writer by re-reading this is that kids can often forget nearly everything about a book and still count it as a favorite, as long as it offers up a few genuinely unique, laser-precise insights into tricky areas of the child psyche; unfortunately from a professional standpoint, I'm told that such books are incredibly difficult to get sold, and require coming across a dedicated editor with a mindset towards winning awards, and who doesn't mind taking on the occasional censorship battle. (There's a reason, after all, that something like 80 percent of the submission guidelines I've now read from various publishers explicitly state, "We do not accept manuscripts that deal with puberty or sexuality.") Although they're the kinds of books that stick in readers' heads for decades, I'm coming to realize that one simply cannot try to base a career on such titles (unless you're Judy Blume, and I am certainly not Judy Blume), although definitely one can always be concentrating on adding unique insights about childhood to virtually any kid-lit story they're writing.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Series review: "A to Z Mysteries," by Ron Roy

The Unwilling Umpire (2004)
The X'ed-Out X-Ray (2005)
The Yellow Yacht (2005)
By Ron Roy
Random House

A friend has convinced me to try my hand this year at writing children's literature; but I don't actually know anything about children's literature, so am starting the process simply by reading a large selection of titles that have been recommended to me. I've been told that these, the "A to Z Mysteries" by Ron Roy (a 26-book series, each named after a different letter in the alphabet) are among the most popular "chapter books" these days among the elementary-school readers they're designed for (so in other words, aged roughly 7 to 10); and indeed, after reading three of them myself (U, X and Y), I can see that they touch on nearly every piece of advice I've now been given regarding writing for this age group, including a strong sense of humor, a quickly-paced but not too complicated storyline, lots of action and mystery, many scenes set in a school environment, and sentences that average around ten words. (Note, however, that these books don't adhere to one piece of advice I've been given, to concentrate on the ways that boys and girls interact at that age; although the three-person team of friends at the center of our tales is co-ed, they essentially all act the same, and eschew relationships with other children mostly to instead interrogate adults regarding the latest mystery they're trying to solve.) In fact, I was surprised by just how old-fashioned and even fuddy-duddy these stories sometimes are, given their immense popularity, happy proof that you don't nearly need to know about all the latest children's fads in order to write books that will appeal to them; they take place in a small middle-class pedestrian-oriented "Leave It To Beaver"esque town where even cellphones barely exist, and except for a few references to the internet could easily be mistaken for the chapter books from the 1950s and '60s that I grew up on.

As is typical for this age group, the "mystery" behind each story is pretty easily solvable, and is used mostly as an excuse to teach the rational problem-solving process of observation, interviews, and logical deduction; and as is typical of many authors for this age group, Roy often uses these stories to emphasize non-controversial moral lessons (i.e. "Lying is bad"), and also I think does an admirable job at adding as much diversity as possible to his admittedly white-bread environment. Each book is around 10,000 words altogether, broken into a dozen or so chapters, and contains dozens of illustrations* by John Steven Gurney.

*And P.S., not that this matters, but there was an aspect of these books that re-awakened an old complaint of mine from when I was in grade school and actually reading such books myself -- namely, the fact that the covers are done in a lush, full-color, photorealistic style, while the interior illustrations are monotonally cartoonish to the level of a typical newspaper comic strip, something I always considered a "bait & switch" scam when I was an actual kid. Although I could care less as a grown-up (and indeed, as a grown-up now understand why such a thing is done in the first place), I found it funny that these books could make a long-forgotten thirty-year-old memory re-emerge like that so profoundly.

Book review: "The (Mostly) True Adventures of Homer P. Figg," by Rodman Philbrick

The (Mostly) True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (2009)

By Rodman Philbrick
The Blue Sky Press / Scholastic

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. My most recent, The (Mostly) True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (also a 2010 Newbery Honoree), turns out to be historical fiction, specifically about a wisecracking child during the American Civil War of the 1860s, whose teenaged brother is illegally sold into proscription with the Union Army by an abusive guardian; and I'm not planning on writing historical fiction myself, so don't have much to say about this other than that I found it to be just fine for what it is, and that it reads not just like a kid's version of a Mark Twain story but literally like an actual Mark Twain story. It's around 50,000 words altogether, and is best in my opinion for adventure-loving boys in middle school or junior high, or in other words from around 11 to 14 in age. (And a special warning to parents of younger children -- this book contains exactly as many dark elements as you would expect from a story about neglected rural children in the 1860s.)