Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New Book Micro-Reviews

The Baptism by Shelia P. Moses

Many weeks ago, Fuse#8 created a list of books that she think might be Newbery contenders for this year (and, alas, I cannot find the original post). This book was on the list, citing the excellence of The Baptism's prequels: The Legend of Buddy Bush and The Return of Buddy Bush. The main question was if a reader unfamiliar with the prequels would be able to read The Baptism as a stand-alone. Where oh where could such a reader be found?

Twa-ta-ta-taaaaa! Brooke to the rescue!

And here's the bad news: The Baptism does not work as a stand-alone. It could have -- ohhh, it could have, if Moses had not been so intent on connecting this book to its two predecessors.

Here's the premise: twelve-year-old Luke lives in North Carolina, circa the 1940s. His mother wants him to get baptized at the local church in one week. The book chronicles Luke's musings and misdeeds during that week, including scrapes with the local landowner's son, feelings of enmity against his stepfather, and the guilt over pulling his twin, Leon, into constant "sinnin."

The story is almost a play-by-play of Luke's thoughts, so the narrative tends to ramble and go off on tangents. I was fine with that -- Moses' grasp of the Southern vernacular is masterful -- although some young readers might find it frustrating. The thing I found strange was the long passages Moses devotes to having Luke recap the events of the first two books in the trilogy. It seemed tacked on, and had no apparent relation to what was presently going on in Luke's life. Luke's summary of Buddy Bush's adventures don't have much dramatic power in truncated form; it's obvious that Luke thinks they were important, but it's unclear to readers why. Then you get to the end, where there is a bit of a surprise twist, and I wonder if the whole reason for the back story was to lead up to it. Because I didn't have any particular feeling for the stories in the first two books, the ending came off as more random than surprising.

Personally, I think the book would have been better if it had stuck to Luke's story and left Buddy Bush out of it. Luke is a funny, picaresque character, and his ruminations on life, race, and spirituality could easily have stood on their own.

Okay . . . that review was not a micro-review. Time to change gears . . .

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

One of my Rules of Thumb for rating the merits of a book for young readers is if it describes child experiences in such an authentic way that it immediately brings to mind memories from my own childhood. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Tarshis has done the job right in this regard. This story presents the perspectives (in alternating chapters) of two very different girls: Emma-Jean, who is analytical to the point of being completely detatched from her classmates, and Colleen, who is sweet, kind, and cares more about her relationships with others than anything else. What happens when Emma-Jean decides to start connecting with Colleen and other fellow seventh-graders (using a letter-writing scheme worthy of Anastasia Krupnik) is both funny and heartbreaking; both girls are incredibly, believably innocent in their own ways. Part of the journey to friendship for these girls -- to seeing and accepting yourself and others for what they are -- involves falling a bit, and being better off because of it. Tarshis gives us an excellent portrait of life on both sides of the popularity fence, and I think girls everywhere would benefit from giving it a good read.

Dimity Dumpty by Bob Graham

Okay, here are the reasons why you need to read this book:

1. It's about Humpty's little sister, who exhibits some serious quick thinking and you-go-girl-ness when it comes to rescuing her brother from his famous fall-off-the-wall.

2. The writing is concise and gorgeous, just like in Graham's other books.

3. The illustrations are to-die-for cute (the Dumpty family travels in a wagon made out of an egg carton! Which is pulled by a chicken! SWEET!).

4. The name "Dimity" is cool. Just admit it, people.

Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman

A boy is stuck indoors on a rainy day, when he finds a key under an old chair. After a bit of hunting, he finds that the key unlocks a chest that leads him to a sunny, idyllic world, with a bunch of kids to play with.

Over at the excelsior file, Elzey wonders if this book might be exhibiting a little bit of classism -- the protagonist (a white boy) seems trapped in a mansion, complete with servants and teacups, while the kids in the trunk are multicultural and barefoot. Eh, I don't quite agree. I think that Lehman simply wanted to portray the environment least appealing to a kid (gloomy, stuffy mansion) and the escape to a kid's idea of the ultimate fun place (barefoot on the beach!). What I found disappointing is the lack of brilliant originality that we've seen in Lehman's other picture books (Museum Trip and The Red Book). The whole bored-kid-finds-escape-into-magical-world trope has been around forever. There was none of the mystery and excitement, the sense that some strange Other Powers might be at work, that were in her other books. But hey, you can't win 'em all.


fusenumber8 said...

Darn. That was my fear with "The Baptism". I had hoped maybe those other books in the "series" (or whatever it is) might not distract. No such luck, huh? Doggone it. I did like that one, but I can see your point.

Monica Edinger said...

I picked up The Baptism reluctantly and ended up liking it tremendously. I have to disagree with both of you about Buddy Bush. I read the first ages back, can't remember it well, and did not read the sequel; I saw a mention or two of Buddy Bush, but he didn't factor into this story for me. Not, it was the twins and their daily lead-up to the baptism that interested me. The voice, the structure, all quite delightful! (Actually the quibble I have that I couldn't place this in an exact time period, but that wouldn't matter to child readers.)

Brooke said...

Luke mentions something happening "back in the thirties," so I assumed this was set in the 1940s.

I suppose most of my quibbles come from the ending -- of the surprise guest at the baptism. My reaction was more of "huh?" than "whoa." The rest of the book was leading up to . . . this?

I dunno, it marred what I think would otherwise been a flawless book -- Luke's voice is already one of my favorites for 2007. Although Luke's thoughts do tend to veer off into tangents easily, it just plays into the whole tone of the book for me).

fusenumber8 said...

Well, but that was just the ending. One might argue that a book can still be good, even if the last little blip on the radar screen is a bit off. I don't think the appearance of BB is necessarily the point of the ending. The willing baptism is the point, right? It's an interesting debate.

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