Cammie McGovern's Just My Luck is new this year (2016) from HarperCollins. A reader wrote to ask me about it, because Indian in the Cupboard is part of the story.
I started reading it two days ago and kept setting it aside. The main character is a 4th grader named Benny. His brother, George, is in 6th grade, and is "medium-functioning autistic" (p. 16). I hope Disability in Kidlit finds someone to review it. Some time back, I read their review of Anne Ursu's The Real Boy. I love that book. One thing that stood out in the review was that the story is told from the perspective of the autistic child, rather than from outsider's who gawk at him. There are pages in Just My Luck where it feels like someone is gawking at George.
I got to page 49 and paused. At that point in the story, Benny is with his older brother, Martin, who is on his first date with Lisa. They go into a Barnes & Noble, where Lisa asks Benny what he's reading (p. 49):
She said she knew it sounded childish but her favorite books were still the Little House on the Prairie series that she read when she was in Mr. Norris's class. "I just love them," she said."
Benny has a crush on Lisa, and so, he says he loves them, too. He's never read them, but their mother used to make them watch the TV show. Two weeks later when she's visiting their house, Benny pretends to be reading Little House in the Big Woods.
Lisa exclaims that it is her favorite book.
I wonder if McGovern read that book recently? In Little House in the Big Woods
, Pa tells the girls how he, as a young boy, would play that he was a mighty hunter stalking wild animals and Indians. Stalking Indians. Do you remember that part of that book? Do you know any other book for kids that has someone hunting another person or people?
I wanted to throw Just My Luck
across the room when I got to that part and I want to ask McGovern if she remembers that passage.
On page 64, Lisa tells Benny that Mr. Norris read Indian in the Cupboard
aloud to them when she was in his class and that he dressed up as characters, too. That was five years back. Benny is in Mr. Norris's class now and he's not done anything like that. Benny tells his mom that Mr. Norris wasn't reading Indian in the Cupboard
to them, so, his mom gets the book from the library and starts reading it aloud, doing the voices as she does (p. 72):
It turns out he's [Little Bear] not only alive, but he's a real person from history, an Iroquois who's fighting battles with the French and English. So Mom has to talk like him, which George loves because he doesn't talk very well. George keeps laughing until Mom tells him it isn't really funny. "In fact," she says, "it perpetuates a lot of negative stereotypes about Native Americans, which is probably why Mr. Norris isn't reading this book out loud to his class anymore."
Then she keeps on reading. She's decided, apparently, that she's going to perpetuate those stereotypes herself. That doesn't add up, does it? And it doesn't seem very caring of her to lay into George like she did, either. She's deliberately being an animated reader, which prompts a response from her autistic son, and she scolds him?! And keeps reading?!
Throughout the next chapters, Benny thinks about toys coming to life. He wants a cupboard so he can bring his Legos to life. Several times, he thinks about Indian in the Cupboard
as he develops the idea for how he'll use his Legos to make a movie. Later, they find out why Mr. Norris isn't doing the things he used to do. It isn't because he's recognized the problems in Indian in the Cupboard.
It is because he's got to take care of his own autistic son, and he's exhausted. He has no time or energy to do the things he used to do.
I don't like Just My Luck.
If Disability in Kidlit reviews it, I'll be back to point to their review. For now, the Native content alone is enough for me to say that I do not recommend Just My Luck.
The Real Boy
By Anne Ursu
Illustrated by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves now
My two-year-old is dealing with the concept of personhood. Lately she’s taken to proclaiming proudly “I’m a person!” when she has successfully mastered something. By the same token, failure to accomplish even the most mundane task is met with a dejected, “I’m not a person”. This notion of personhood and what it takes to either be a person or not a person reminded me a fair amount of Anne Ursu’s latest middle grade novel The Real Boy. There aren’t many children’s books that dare to delve into the notion of what it means to be a “real” person. Whole hosts of kids walk through their schools looking around, wondering why they aren’t like the others. There’s this feeling often that maybe they were made incorrectly, or that everyone else is having fun without them because they’re privy to some hitherto unknown secret. Part of what I love about Anne Ursu’s latest is that it taps directly into that fear, creating a character that must use his wits to defeat not only the foes that beset him physically, but the ones in his own head that make even casual interactions a difficulty.
Oscar should be very grateful. It’s not every orphan who gets selected to aid a magician as talented as Master Caleb. For years Oscar has ground herbs for Caleb, studiously avoiding the customers that come for his charms, as well as Caleb’s nasty apprentice Wolf. Oscar is the kind of kid who’d rather pore over his master’s old books rather than deal with the frightening conversations a day in his master’s shop might entail. All that changes the day Wolf meets with an accident and Caleb starts leaving the shop more and more. A creature has been spotted causing awful havoc and the local magic workers should be the ones to take care of the problem. So why aren’t they? When Oscar is saved from the role of customer service by an apprentice named Callie, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and seek to find not just the source of the disturbance but also the reason why some of the rich children in the nearby city have been struck by the strangest of diseases.
Though Ms. Ursu has been around for years, only recently have her books been attracting serious critical buzz. I was particularly drawn to her novel retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” last year in the form of the middle grade novel Breadcrumbs. So naturally, when I read the plot description and title of The Real Boy I assumed that the story would be some kind of retelling of the “Pinocchio” tale. As it turns out, there is the faintest whiff of Pinocchio circling this story, but it is by no means a strict model. As one of the librarians in my system put it, “I am scarred for life by Pinocchio (absolutely abhor any tale relating to inanimate objects longing to become real to the point where I find it creepy) but did not find this disturbing in the least.” Truth be told it would have been easy enough for Ursu to crank up the creepy factor if she had wanted to. But rather than clutter the text up with unnecessary disgust, the story is instead clean, fast, exciting, and to the point. And for all that it is 352 pages or so, you couldn’t cut it down.
There have been a fair number of novels and books for children this year that have been accused of being written with adults rather than children in mind. I’ve fielded concerns about everything from Bob Graham’s The Silver Button to Cynthia Rylant’s God Got a Dog to Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch. Interestingly, folks have not lobbed the same criticisms at The Real Boy, for which I am grateful. Certainly it would be easy to see the title in that light. Much of the storyline hinges on the power of parental fear, the sometimes horrific lengths those same parents will go to to “protect” their young, and the people who prey on those fears. Parents, teachers, and librarians that read this book will immediately recognize the villainy at work here, but kids will perceive it on an entirely different level. While the adults gnash their teeth at the bad guy’s actions, children will understand that the biggest villain in this book isn’t a person, but Oscar’s own perceptions of himself. To defeat the big bad, our hero has to delve deep down into his own self and past, make a couple incorrect assumptions, and come out stronger in the end.
He is helped in no small part by Callie. I feel bad that when in trying to define a book I feel myself falling back on what it doesn’t do rather than what it does do. Still, I think it worth noting that in the case of Callie she isn’t some deux ex machina who solves all of Oscar’s problems for him. She helps him, certainly. Even gets angry and impatient with him on occasion, but she’s a real person with a personal journey of her own. She isn’t just slapped into the narrative to give our hero a necessary foil. The same could be said of the baker, a fatherly figure who runs the risk of becoming that wise adult character that steps in when the child characters are flailing about. Ursu almost makes a pointed refusal to go to him for help, though. It’s as if he’s just there to show that not all adults in the world are completely off their rockers. Just most, it would seem.
There’s one more thing the book doesn’t do that really won my admiration, but I think that by even mentioning it here I’m giving away an essential plot point. Consider this your official spoiler alert, then. If you have any desire to read this book on your own, please do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. All gone? Good. Now a pet peeve of mine that I see from time to time and think an awfully bad idea is when a character appears to be on the autism spectrum of some sort, and then a magical reason for that outsider status comes up. One such fantasy I read long ago, the autistic child turned out to be a fairy changeling, which explained why she was unable to communicate with other people. While well intentioned, I think this kind of plot device misses the point. Now one could make the case for Oscar as someone who is on “the spectrum”. However, the advantage of having such a character in a fantasy setting is that there’s no real way to define his status. Then, late in the book, Oscar stumbles upon a discovery that gives him a definite impression that he is not a human like the people around him. Ursu’s very definite choice to then rescind that possibility hammered home for me the essential theme of the book. There are no easy choices within these pages. Just very real souls trying their best to live the lives they want, free from impediments inside or outside their very own selves.
I’ve heard a smattering of objections to the book at this point that are probably worth looking into. One librarian of my acquaintance expressed some concern about Ursu’s world building. She said that for all that she plumbs the depths of character and narrative with an admirable and enviable skill, they never really felt that they could “see” the world that she had conjured. I suspect that some of this difficulty might have come from the fact that the librarian read an advanced reader’s copy of the book without the benefit of the map of Aletheia in the front. But maybe their problem was bigger than simple geography. Insofar as Ms. Ursu does indulge in world building, it’s a world within set, tight parameters. The country is an island with a protected glittering city on the one hand and a rough rural village on the other. Much like a stage play, Ursu’s storyline is constricted within the rules she’s set for herself. For readers who prefer the wide all-encompassing lands you’d see in a Tolkien or Rowling title, the limitations might feel restrictive.
Now let us not, in the midst of all this talky talk, downplay the importance of illustrator Erin McGuire. McGuire and Ursu were actually paired together once before on the underappreciated Breadcrumbs. I had originally read the book in a form without the art, and it was pleasant in and of itself. McGuire’s interstitial illustrations, however, really serve to heighten the reader’s enjoyment. The pictures are actually relatively rare, their occasional appearances feeling like nothing so much as a delicious chocolate chip popping up in a sea of vanilla ice cream. You never know when you’ll find one, but it’s always sweet when you do.
Breadcrumbs, for all that I personally loved it, was a difficult book for a lot of folks to swallow. In it, Ursu managed to synthesize the soul-crushing loneliness of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and the results proved too dark for some readers. With The Real Boy the source material, if you can even call it that, is incidental. As with all good fantasies for kids there’s also a fair amount of darkness here, but it’s far less heavy and there’s also an introspective undercurrent that by some miracle actually appears to be interesting to kids. Whodathunkit? Wholly unexpected with plot twists and turns you won’t see coming, no matter how hard you squint, Ursu’s is a book worth nabbing for your own sweet self. Grab that puppy up.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
By Anne Ursu
Illustrated by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves September 27, 2011
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen is, let’s admit it, the world’s greatest puberty metaphor. A boy and girl are friends. Something happens and he grows cold and distant. In the midst of his indifference he’s spirited away and must be won back. Okay, the metaphor kind of breaks down at the end there, but the separation of boy/girl best friends is very real. With that in mind author Anne Ursu has done the mildly impossible. She has updated the old tale to the 21st century, thrown in references to other Andersen tales, and generally written one of the more fascinating and beautifully written, if sad, fantasy novels for middle grade readers of the year. If there’s a book to watch this season, Breadcrumbs is it.
Hazel and Jack are best friends, now and forever. At least that’s how Hazel sees it. Sure, she knows that Jack’s a little depressed because of his mother’s mental illness, but he’s always there for her no matter what. That’s a good thing since Hazel doesn’t like dealing with her new school and she definitely doesn’t want any other friends. Then, one day, everything changes. Jack suddenly turns cold on Hazel. He refuses to be her friend, and then without warning disappears altogether. His parents give one reason for where he has gone, but when Hazel learns that Jack was spirited away by a beautiful woman in a carriage she sets off into the nearby woods to find her friend and to save him, no matter what the cost (no matter if he wants to be rescued, for that matter). Trouble is, you can read all the books about adventures that you like, but when it comes to real rescue missions nobody can prepare you for the moment when you have to face your own problems.
To my mind, Ursu does for Hans Christian Andersen in this book what Adam Gidwitz did for The Brothers Grimm in his A Tale Dark and Grimm. Which is to say, she picks him apart. Andersen was an odd author. There. I said it. His stories were rarely happy-go-lucky affairs. I mean, have you ever read The Swineherd? There’s a darkness to his tales. With Breadcrumbs that darkness isn’t there simply because this is based on one of his stories. His influence permeates everything in this tale. Hazel’s travels bring her in contact with stories that bear some resemblance to The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl. Other stories seem to reference
7 Comments on Review of the Day: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, last added: 6/29/2011