Friday, October 22, 2010

Children's Book Review: Criss Cross

Set in the 1960s, Criss Cross often mentions "transcendental" type moments of revelation. One of these was in the second chapter, and it made me skeptical that the book would provide any real insight into young minds. Boy was I wrong.

Lynn Rae Perkins is a mastermind at expressing the thoughts--random or organized, specific or theoretical--of young teenagers that are discovering their own personality and friends. Using a variety of forms from prose to haiku, to song lyrics and split screen writing, Perkins' use of words is an illustration itself to the complexity of young minds seeking to find their way through life. Thinking back to my own early teen years (which weren't so long ago) I recognize myself and my own thoughts in this book...not just in one character, but in all of them!

Perkins introduces a fun cast of ordinary teens and follows them through a series of developing events. So flawlessly does she track the mental gyrations of her characters, the reader moves with them through the story, feeling the subtle changes of growing personality, but not realizing it until the characters themselves make the discovery.

There are great themes of friendship, humility, and compassion through it all, along with a classic series of awkward teenage moments and everyday vignettes, humorous because of their accurate detail. Altogether, it makes for an upbeat book, charming in its realism and normalcy. (Why is realism so often not charming?) It reminds us of what we should already know: *most* teens in their coming of age years are (we all hope) in the process of becoming good adults, who enjoy life and take interest in and care for those around them. Though the subject matter is taken on by thousands of authors every year, Perkins approaches her story with a unique style and insight. If you're looking for a quiet, humorous adventure through the minds of several growing teenage friends, have this one close at hand!

Children's Book Review: Shiloh (spoiler alert)

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's book, Shiloh, centers around a boy who discovers a shy and mistreated beagle and his quest to make the dog his own. The book is full of precious moments of love between boy and dog that are sharply contrasted with the tensions in the book, of which there are several. There's the tension between the boy and his parents, who strictly prohibit pets on the reasonable grounds that they cannot afford to feed them or take them to the vet. All their extra funds go to caring for the boy's grandmother. The dog's owner, Judd, causes tension also because he's dishonest, and he's cruel to his dogs. And finally, there's a boatload of tension between the boy and everyone else because he decides to hide the dog and tells innumerable lies to cover it up.

These are excellent themes and questions for children to consider: What is right and wrong? Does it always line up with what the law says? What are the consequences of lying? Does loving something grant you some kind of ownership over it? And what happens when your love for one thing might hurt something else you love?

While Shiloh gives us considerable food for thought on the first four questions and resolves them in the end, the last question remains asked, but unanswered. For the boy and his family end up with the dog, but the family's situation has not changed. The reader is left to wonder, will their grandmother not get all the care she needs? Will the family get enough food? Will they really be able to to take care of the dog? (As far as we know, the book ends with the boy still owing his father money for a doctor's visit when Shiloh was attacked by another dog.)

The story is well told and the characters are painted brilliantly, which earned the book a Newbery Medal in 1992. But with one of the main tensions in the book remaining unresolved in the end, some readers are bound to walk away less than satisfied. We want to be thrilled for the boy, but I, at least, put the book down hoping (rather than being reassured) that the right decision was made and they'd all "live happily ever after." This feeling of unease in the end was compounded by the fact that the boy witnessed his neighbor Judd shoot a dear out of season, and used this information to blackmail Judd into selling him the dog. Even in the boy's mind, he knew he was doing something dishonest that would, in the long run, hurt the dear population in the area. But he was willing to do anything to keep Shiloh... once again asking the question, "What happens when your love for one thing hurts something else?"

Now I like happy endings, but I can be thoroughly satisfied even with a sad ending, as long as the problem that has propelled the book along is resolved in the end. What bothers me here is that a critical tension throughout the story--one that begs for resolution before the end of the story--remains untouched. Not even in the context of dialogue does the boy talk with his parents about their finances or do the parents reassure the boy that they would "make it work." For me then, the book is good and thought provoking, but I wouldn't recommend it for your "must read" children's book list.