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.