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Alabama Moon by Watt Key
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; September 2006; 304 pp; $16.00 HC
Core Audience: Boys 9+; readers who loved Hatchet or Holes; paranoid survivalists
Strengths: Incredibly vivid writing; a charming and original hero in the spirit of Huck Finn
First, let me say that this review is way overdue, because like Susan Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, this book is at the absolute top of my favorites from 2006, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone except the faithful readers of this blog, unfortunately. This was an egregious oversight, because I can’t say enough good things about this book. This book was recently awarded the E.B. White Read Aloud Award by ABC’s independent booksellers, and it sure deserves it. It grabs you by the throat from the first paragraph, and doesn’t let go.
Written by first-time author Watt Key, Alabama Moon is the story of ten year old Moon who has spent his entire life deep in the Alabama woods with his survivalist father. He knows everything about taking care of himself in the wild from hunting food to building a shelter, but he has never spent much time in the company of strangers. When Moon’s father dies after breaking a leg, his last piece of advice is for Moon to go to Alaska to find others like them. Of course, as soon as Moon sets foot outside of the woods, he finds himself caught up in a world of trouble, and he must figure out a way to make his skills work for him when he has no experience of society.
This novel is amazing both for the originality of its voice, and the fine line it treads between poignant drama and the particular comedy that comes from the clash of two cultures. It is a testament to Watt Key’s writing that he is able to give Moon the complexity of character where his rebelliousness, his vulnerability, and his self-reliance show through in equal measure. The book is full of authentic detail and woodcraft, and boy readers in particular will get plenty of vicarious enjoyment out of Moon’s skills. (My favorite—making a hat worthy of Davy Crockett from the butt-end of a white tailed deer.) Moon is so irrepressible, readers are quickly in his corner as he confronts and rejects the expectations society has for him. In the tradition of Huck Finn and other fine iconoclasts, Moon just will not be kept down.
Of course, in the end we want for Moon what he wants for himself—a place in the world where he belongs. As a first time author, Watt Key has written a remarkable book, and although its most obvious appeal is for middle grade boys, this book deserves a much wider readership. Afterall, the themes of family, friendship, and belonging resonate far beyond the Alabama woods.
Get thee to a bookstore.
The Police Cloud by Christoph Neimann
Random House/Schwartz & Wade; March 2007; 40pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 3-6; Lovers of wonderful illustration
Strengths: Nice blend of a soft story with the ever-popular police and fire genre
This is a wonderful story about a little cloud with big aspirations.
It seems that ever since he was a wee puff, he has dreamed of being a police officer. But who ever heard of a cloud in the police force? When the police decide to give him a chance, nothing goes right in spite of his great intentions. His fellow officers get caught in his fog when they go to chase a robber, and his vapor makes it hard to direct traffic too. It seems like he can’t even patrol the park without getting in the way of the sun. What’s a little civic-minded cloud to do? (Hint: Join the fire department.)
This is Neimann’s first picture book for kids, but his art is very well known from his grown-up work for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time magazine. Here his pictures are bright, punchy, and engaging, with bold fields of color and elegant typography. What I most like about this book is how it combines a sensitive character arc with all the hard edged things typical boys love, like city streets, cars, policemen, and fire trucks. Imaginative and beautifully executed, it will have broad appeal for a wide range of readers. Best of all, it’s a great read-aloud.
You go, little cloud!
Bonus: Check out Christoph’s brand new (and charming) site for the book: www.policecloud.com
17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter
Random House/Schwartz & Wade; December 2006; 32 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Children 5-8; Adults who remember being less-than-perfect
Strengths: Engaging art; Funny, funny, funny
This book is an ode to every sassy girl who has ever lived. (I am one of those sassy girls, and I bet many of you are as well.) It is a laugh-out-loud litany of one troublesome idea after another and the consequence is always the same… “I am not allowed to (insert idea here) anymore.”
From gluing her brother’s bunny slippers to the floor, to setting Joey Whipple’s shoes on fire with the sun and a magnifying glass, to a reoccurring obsession with beavers, to my favorite—giving her brother the “gift of cauliflower” [by flinging it off his forehead with a fork], the heroine of this picture book is irrepressible.
The artwork in the book is just as lively, with a wonderful combination of pen and ink illustration, collage, and mixed media. It spills across the page with great exuberance, and does an excellent job of working with the text to give you the full flavor of its spirited protagonist.
There are many books about behaving badly, but it is much rarer to find one that celebrates the individual with as much warmth and humor as this one.
Because of the weird 12/26/06 release date, I hope this book doesn’t fall through the cracks and get lost in the shuffle for awards and recognition.
It’s a gem.
How It Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn
Random House/Wendy Lamb Books; March 2007; 160 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Middle grade readers 9-12; people who are intrigued by the subject of fake spiritualism; Scam artists
Strengths: Solid writing that sucks you in immediately, original scenario with bite
This was a sleeper on my galley pile, and I’m so glad I picked it up because it was one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time.
Fifteen year-old Annie has a problem. She and her mother have just moved to town, and Annie would like to settle down for awhile, instead of moving around all the time. Peach Hill is a nice quiet ordinary town, and Annie can see that it has a lot to offer. She’d like to make some friends, go to school, and maybe kiss the boy with shiny black hair. In other words, just be normal. But as it is, this can’t happen because everybody in town thinks she’s a drooling dim witted idiot.
Because that’s the scam.
Annie’s life isn’t like the other kids’ lives, and her mother isn’t like other mothers. She’s a spiritualist—Madame Caterina—and she’s come to Peach Hill to read palms, foretell the future, speak with the dead, and take the town for all it’s worth. And Annie is her secret weapon. She can hang around the market and the town square, slack-jawed and lazy-eyed, and go unnoticed except for a few sympathetic glances. Little do the people know that she’s collecting secret intelligence on all of the townsfolk that her mother can then use to defraud them.
But one day Annie decides she’s had enough, and she stages her own miraculous healing, thereby outflanking her canny mother, and setting the scene for some of the more remarkable events Peach Hill has seen for a long time. Smart and strong, Annie has been well schooled in the power of lies, and she turns the table to her advantage.
I loved this coming of age story both because of the spunkiness of Annie’s character, and because of the great supporting cast that makes up this small town. The prohibition-era backdrop is filled with wonderful cameos like the scary revival preacher who makes moonshine in his shed, the two town policemen, one small and one large, the truancy officer who would give the shoes off her feet to keep a kid in school, and the mysterious Mr. Poole who lives in a big house on the hill and has some secrets of his own. This would make a great mother/daughter book club choice or a family read-aloud.
Best of all is the freshness of Annie’s voice, which perfectly captures the tension she feels between the cynicism of the life she’s been brought up in, and her longing for a better, more honest life for herself. She knows she could be as good a grifter as her mother; in fact the town desperately wants her to be the miracle he mother claims her to be. But once Annie starts to think about what SHE might like, things take on a whole new perspective.
This is a great novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves strong characters, a little mystery, unexpected plot twists, and a touch of fraud thrown in for good measure.
Palm reading anyone?
Order this book from your local independent bookstore
Barkbelly, by Cat Weatherill
Knopf; June 2006; 320 pp; $15.95 HC
Core Audience: Readers 8+; GREAT family read-aloud
Strengths: Unusual premise; precise and imaginative use of language; unpredictable story arc
Every once in awhile a book comes in that begs to be read simply because as a reader you have no idea where it’s headed. It looks and sounds interesting, and it just keeps on going. This is one of those books.
It starts with a shiny wooden egg that drops from the sky, and lands in a field where it is destined to taken home by a kindly farmer after it knocks him on the head. Of course, the egg is not what it seems, and neither is the story.
Cat Weatherill is a performance storyteller in the UK, and the richness and folksiness of her written language bespeaks her profession. This is the tale of Barkbelly, a wooden boy who springs from the aforementioned egg, and then spends the rest of the novel on an adventure of self-discovery. Strong, and seemingly indestructible, Barkbelly approaches life with enthusiastic curiosity and candor. Although on the surface it seems like there might be some obvious overtones of that other famous wooden boy with the long nose, this story is more imaginative and less preachy, and it sets out for new ground immediately.
Equal parts fairytale, archetype, and adventure, Barkbelly is full of wonderful character names like Anvil Allsop, Candy Pie, Mop Mallory, Farmer Muckledown, and Sir Blunderbuss Tything, as well as marvelous place names like Ashenpeake, Pumbleditch, and Pebbleport. And then there are all of the other whimsical elements that keep unfolding like the giant Golden-Spiked Far Forest [Hedge]hogs with magical powers, the sparkly cast of Carmenaro’s Circus, the giant pots of boiling jam, and the attack by the Pirate Captain Lord Fox. During the course of the story Barkbelly discovers that there are more wooden people like him in the big wide world, but his starry-eyed expectations of finding family do not match the reality he encounters. Each of Barkbelly’s adventures is full of juicy, tongue-pleasing language that just begs to read aloud, and plot twists that fire the imagination.
At its heart, Barkbelly’s tale is really a fable about a boy who runs away from a past mistake, and discovers after much trial and error that the solution to his problem— and his true self—lie back where he started. The journey is necessary to find it out for both the character and the reader, and in the end we all celebrate the humble blessings that are right under our noses.