One-Minute Book Reviews

January 23, 2010

A Second Look at a Controversial Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron’s ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’

Note: I’m reading the 2010 Newbery medalist, When You Reach Me, and will review it soon. This is a repost of a review of the controversial 2007 winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if miniature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky is saved in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category. One-Minute Book Reviews also posted an analysis of why the novel might have won the Newbery.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and who has been book editor of  the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

6 Comments »

  1. I read When You Reach Me the day it won – there were a lot of predictions it would win, so I picked it up at the local library last Saturday. I really liked it – here’s my review.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — January 23, 2010 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Amanda, I enjoyed your review and am glad you linked to it. I’m about halfway through WHEN YOU REACH ME and agree with you that it’s fast-paced and that you can read it quickly, which is part of its appeal. Also glad you mentioned its connection to A WRINKLE IN TIME, because some people might want to read it for that reason alone.

    An issue the novel raises for me (still unresolved in my mind) is that the Newbery is supposed to go to the “most distinguished” work of American literature for children. WHEN YOU REACH ME is enjoyable, but is it “distinguished” (especially when compared to, for example, A WRINKLE IN TIME)?
    And the Newbery seems to tilt more and more toward fiction now that there are awards for nonfiction like the new YALSA nonfiction prize. But this year there was great nonfiction, including both CLAUDETTE COLVIN and CHARLES AND EMMA. Is WHEN YOU REACH ME more “distinguished” than those two?

    Can’t answer until I finish, but I wonder. If you’ve read any of this year’s really good nonfiction books, I’d love to know what you think. Thanks!
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 24, 2010 @ 7:58 pm | Reply

  3. I haven’t read CLAUDETTE COLVIN and CHARLES AND EMMA yet so it’s hard to say for sure, but I’m guessing that both books are aimed more towards young adults (age 13+), while WHEN YOU REACH ME, with its 12-year-old protagonist, seems to have more appeal for ages 8-12.

    As for the fiction versus nonfiction question: You’ve got the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, tbe Printz award “for excellence in young adult literature,” the Newbery, and the Sibert Medal “for most distunguished informational [nonfiction] book for children.” Because of the existence of the awards for the nonfiction books, children and young adult, I think the Newbery and Printz tend to go to children’s and young adult’s fiction respectively.

    CHARLES AND EMMA, besides winning the YALSA nonfiction award, was a Printz honor book. CLAUDETTE COLVIN was a Newbery honor book, a Sibert honor book, and a finalist for the YALSA nonfiction award.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m really not all that impressed with A WRINKLE IN TIME, although it seems to have stood the test of time, and its fans really love it. :)

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — January 24, 2010 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  4. “Because of the existence of awards for nonfiction books” the Newbery tends to go to fiction: Right.

    Not what the award citation says, though — it’s supposed to go to a distinguished work of “literature,” which can include nonfiction. So it seems to me that if the Newbery is going to go to fiction year after year, it would make sense for the ALA to change the awards citation to read “most distinguished work of fiction” to prevent confusion. Suspect it will never happen, but I’d support the ALA if it ever decided to do that.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 24, 2010 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

  5. This book sounds very interesting. The review is well balanced. Thanks.

    Comment by roosterfeather — February 12, 2010 @ 9:43 pm | Reply


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