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.

July 2, 2009

Is the State of Contemporary Poetry Healthy? – Quote of the Day / William Logan

Just picked up Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue (Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.50), the new book of poetry criticism by William Logan, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Undiscovered Country. I’d read and enjoyed many of the pieces in Our Savage Art when they appeared in The New Criterion and elsewhere. (Sample opening line: “John Ashbery has long threatened to become a public monument, visited mainly by schoolchildren and pigeons.”) But I’d missed a 2002 Contemporary Poetry Review interview with Logan by the poet and critic Garrick Davis that’s reprinted in the new book.

In the interview, Davis asks, “What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?” Logan replies:

“I distrust the motives of the question. Much of what we dislike about the poetry around us won’t bother the readers of the future, because it will have been forgotten. I doubt even the Pulitzer Prize winners of the past two decades will have many poems in anthologies half a century from now. This isn’t simply a problem with the prize, though it’s a scandal that Amy Clampitt never won it and another that Gjertrud Schnackenberg has yet to win it.

“Our poetry is healthy, if the sole measure is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Much is mediocre, but most poetry in any period is mediocre. What bothers me, as a reader, is how slim current ambitions are – too many contemporary poems start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew – they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 30, 2009

More Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:34 pm
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On Sunday the novelist Alice Hoffman posted on her Twitter feed a nasty and potentially libelous personal attack on the critic Roberta Silman, who had given her new The Story Sisters a tepid review that day in The Boston Globe. Since then, Hoffman reportedly has closed her Twitter account, and the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times and others have published the details of controversy, so I won’t rehash it now.  But because Silman criticized The Story Sisters for defects similar to those I’ve observed frequently in Hoffman’s books over the past two decades or so, I’m reposting a review of her Skylight Confessions that first appeared on this site on February 15, 2007, under the title “Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper.”

A Cinderella tale takes a dark and supernatural turn for a heroine who believes in fate

Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown/Back Bay, 262 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Brooke Allen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Skylight Confessions is a kind of fairy tale for college graduates, a book that has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but that in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.” I wish I could say it wasn’t true.

But Allen got it right – except that this is a Cinderella story in reverse. Like a romance novel, Skylight Confessions has a plain and virginal heroine – with “no college degree, no talents to speak of” — whose goodness and belief in fate allow her marry “up.” Arlyn Singer even gets her own counterpart to Cinderella’s footwear when her husband inherits a steel-and-glass house in Connecticut known as the Glass Slipper.

Skylight Confessions also requires you to accept the extraordinarily implausible events found in romance novels. Here are some that occur in the first 20 pages: On the night her father dies and leaves her orphaned at the age of 17, Arlie decides that she will marry the first man who walks down her street. She stands on her front porch for three hours until, sure enough, a Yalie with “beautiful pale eyes” stops to ask directions. Though she’s alone in the house, she invites him in. He nods off on the couch, and while he’s sleeping, she takes off all her clothes in the kitchen. When he awakes and finds her naked, they fall into each other’s arms. They stay in bed until he cruelly leaves her three days later with out saying goodbye. However hurt she is by this, Arlie believes “things happen for a reason,” so within two weeks, she sells her house and belongings and shows up unannounced at his dorm at Yale. He doesn’t want to see her, but she persists, and they marry.

The novel doesn’t become more believable after this — it becomes less so as Hoffman rolls out her signature elements of magic and the supernatural. But it does become much darker. Arlie and her children suffer continual disasters, including the arrival of a wicked stepmother, all described in prose that alternates between the overwrought language of melodrama and the banalities of pop psychology. “Was she an enabler?” a nanny wonders as she tries to keep a delinquent child out of jail. And while the novel asserts that such events eventually change some characters, it doesn’t begin to prove it. The glass slipper that shatters in the opening pages of the novel never gets put back together.

Best line: On pearls that were originally “the color of camellias”: “After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.”

Worst line: The first sentence typifies the ponderous writing: “She was his first wife, but at the moment when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time.” Cross out that “at the moment” and the sentence loses nothing. So why is it there?

Published: January 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – What Sarah Palin Has in Common With Ishmael Beah

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:01 pm
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Watching how tightly the McCain campaign has controlled the media access to Sarah Palin, I thought: Where have I seen something like this before? Answer: the publicity campaign for A Long Way Gone, which Ishmael Beah continues to bill as a memoir of his years as a child soldier despite serious challenges to the credibility of many of his claims. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has done with Beah what McCain has done with Palin: Restrict speeches and interviews severely, offering them mainly to safe audiences and journalists. Beah has never been interviewed by an American broadcaster who has asked tough questions and followed up on them as directly as Charles Gibson and Katie Couric did with Palin. Cynthia McFadden – one of the few who had a chance to do it – wimped out unabashedly in her interview with Beah earlier this year on Nightline. blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/08/nightlines_bad.php.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 3, 2008

New Paperback Edition Doesn’t Ease Concerns About ‘A Long Way Gone’ — Questions Reporters, Producers and You, the Reader, Should Ask Ishmael Beah

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:45 pm
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The publisher has replaced an error-riddled map, but many questions about credibility remain

An altered map appears in the new paperback edition of A Long Way Gone that went on sale in some bookstores over the weekend – a tacit acknowledgement that the original had “seriously misleading errors,” as the Australian reported earlier this year. The map changes the shape of the journey taken by author Ishmael Beah, who says he was forced to serve as a child soldier after fleeing his village during the civil war in Sierra Leone.

But the paperback edition doesn’t ease the concerns about the overall credibility of the book, which have intensified since the hardcover version came out in early 2007. UNICEF said recently that it can’t confirm Beah’s claim that six people died in a fight in one of its rehabilitation camps in Sierra Leone, though the agency says it still believes he was a child soldier.

Here are some of the questions that the paperback edition fails to answer and that reporters, producers and others should ask Beah:

1. You refused to answer the question when a Village Voice reporter asked if you had used composite characters in your book or passed off others’ experiences as your own. Once again: Did you use composite characters or pass off others’ experiences as your own?

2. The cover of A Long Way Gone www.alongwaygone.com shows a child soldier dressed not in the colors of Sierra Leone but of nearby Niger, which also had a civil war in the 1990s. Where was the cover photo taken?

3. Do you still believe, as you claim in your book, that your parents are dead? Why?

4. You say that you concluded your parents were dead after a man named Gasemu — “who used to be one of the notorious single men in my town”– told you that your parents had been staying in a charred house and you saw ashes there. Gasemu does not sound like an impeccable source. Did you have other sources for where your parents were staying?

5. When you were told later that your parents couldn’t be found, why did you assume they had died and not gone into hiding or fled the country?

6. Do you still believe, as you claim in your book, that your two brothers are dead? Why?

7. You say you have learned “to forgive” yourself for the sadistic atrocities you inflicted on others. For example, you say you killed one man by slitting his throat with a bayonet. And you say you killed six prisoners this way: “ … they were all lined up, six of them, with their hands tied. I shot them on their feet and watched them suffer for an entire day before finally shooting them in the head so they would stop crying.” Should the families of your victims forgive you?

8. You met regularly with your editor, Sarah Crichton, while writing the book. How did that process work? After you met with Crichton, would she write up what you said and show you what she wrote? Or would you write up something and show her?

9. The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of A Long Way Gone says the world has about 300,000 child soldiers. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says “it not possible to give a global figure for the number of child soldiers” www.child-soldiers.org. The steering committee for the coalition consists of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, where you serve on an advisory committee. Why did you quote prominently a figure the coalition appears not to support? Have you cited the number in speeches or interviews? If your publisher used the number without your consent, do you repudiate its use? Was it a mistake to use it? Why was this figure removed from the paperback edition?

10. Laura Simms calls you her “adopted son” on her Web site www.laurasimms.com. Similarly, you referred to her as your “adoptive mother” in Publishers Weekly. Has Simms formally adopted you? If not, has she filed any petitions to adopt you that have not yet been approved?

11. Wikipedia says Simms is not your adoptive mother but your “foster mother” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. And the Wikipedia “Discussion” page for your entry suggests that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has protested other aspects of your listing en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Ishmael_Beah. (“The subject’s publisher has registered disquiet with the weight we give The Australian’s account here …”). Has your publisher protested the use of “foster mother” instead of “adopted mother”? Why or why not?

12. You say that six people died and several were wounded in a fight at a UNICEF camp that brought military and national police and ambulances to the scene. UNICEF has said it can’t confirm this. Can you explain why there might be no record of a brawl involving two police forces, health care workers and a United Nations agency, and all the people taking part in or watching the fight? If you made public the name of the camp location, others might come forward to confirm your account. Can you tell us the name of the camp? Or where it was situated? blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/03/unicef_cannot_c.php

13. Some of the concerns about the credibility of your book might go away if reporters could interview some of your fellow soldiers, whom you identify only by their first names. Can you provide few of their last names or other identifying details, such as where they lived, that could help reporters track them down?

14. What is your legal status in the United States? Are you a permanent resident or citizen? If you are a permanent resident, have you applied for U.S. citizenship? If you are a U.S. citizen, do you hold dual citizenship in Sierra Leone or another country?

15. Wikipedia lists your birthday as Nov. 23, 1980 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_Beah. Is this correct? If so, what evidence exists for it? Do you have a birth certificate or are you relying on your memory?

16. The map in the paperback edition of your book gives journey a different shape than the hardcover edition did. Is the new map accurate? Which of the two maps represents your journey?

17. One-Minute Book Reviews has repeatedly questioned a scene in which you say that you and your friends were close enough to the rebels t hear them clearly and observe small gestures such as nods, yet they couldn’t see you. How far were you from the rebels?

18. On January 24 this site had a post entitled “An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah.” You never answered this. But the post drew comments from someone named “Syn” who seemed be claiming to know your motives. Did you or someone in your family leave these comments? Have you ever left an anonymous comment on a blog? www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/

19. How did you continue your rehabilitation after you came to the U.S.? Did you have psychotherapy, and did it help you? If you don’t want to answer this question, can you explain why you wouldn’t want to answer a question that could help former child soldiers?

20. You say in A Long Way Gone that you have a “photographic memory.” Were any events described in the book based on what some people call “recovered memories” or memories retrieved through hypnosis?

You’ll find more questions in the reading group guide to A Long Way Gone posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 5, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05. The official publication date of the paperback edition of the book is Tuesday, August 5.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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