Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher (YA Fiction)

Whale Talk  

Chris Crutcher (YA Fiction)

It’s interesting being “of color” in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show. My parents have always encouraged me to be loud when I run into racism, but I can’t count on racism being loud when it runs into me.

The Tao “T.J.” Jones is almost 18, adopted, and of mixed race (he’s black, Japanese, and white). He’s had to deal with racism early and often and isn’t much bothered by it anymore. What bothers him NOW is the elitism and exclusivity that the Cutter High School athletics department has placed on earning a letter jacket—an article of clothing he vehemently avoids acquiring. But after he’s recruited (rather academically coerced) into starting a swim team, he sets his sights on taking back his slice of the pie and assembles the unlikeliest group of misfits with the promise that each will earn a letter jacket of their own. Over the weeks, these young men not only begin to strengthen physically, but they start to heal emotionally and the lessons they learn in the water will stay with them long after the last swimmer touches the wall.

Crutcher’s Whale Talk was one of the American Library Association’s Top Five Most Challenged Books in 2005 and was removed from the Limestone County, Alabama school district’s five high school libraries for racism and offensive language. But the book also received countless honors and awards—all well deserved. Was the language spicy and derogatory? Sure was. There were also instances of physical abuse, bullying, child abuse, sexual assault, not to mention a little teacher-student blackmail, but instead the school board decided to focus on the “bad words” thus denying its students the opportunity to benefit from the many lessons contained in this exceptional book.

Whale Talk is my first introduction to Chris Crutcher and it won’t be my last. The story (think The Sandlot meets The Outsiders) is a feel-good story about a bunch of misfits who—led by a no-nonsense coach; a homeless, loyal assistant; and a talented, fearless team captain—band together to defy the odds and earn themselves a coveted prize. It’s a tale as old as time. Crutcher could have easily written a trite and predictable underdog story, but instead delivers a tale full of heart, hope, and forgiveness. These kids are diamonds in the rough and each is given an opportunity to shine and show their worth not only to their team, but to one another. These are principled young men who understand that they’re not fighting for a jacket with a fancy letter, but they’re standing up against stereotypes and proving that they are more than the label they’ve been assigned by their peers and society. These characters are steadfastly devoted to each other and you can’t help but cheer as each touches the wall and moves closer to achieving their goal. Crutcher is a master storyteller and truly taps into the high-school mindset with characters that are relatable, likeable, and you just can’t help but root for. With morally centered characters (including T.J.’s adoptive parents and especially his father who was given an incredibly heartbreaking backstory) and themes of acceptance, perseverance, and grace, Whale Talk should be moved from the banned books and instead placed on the required reading list.

Although T.J. may have started this journey with a questionable motive, he learned a lot about his teammates and himself along the way. There is a common theme of being able to project your own thoughts and feelings to the world so that everyone would instantly know your challenges, struggles, triumphs, and joys. T.J.’s therapist once told him that, “There is very little about humans that doesn’t have to do with connection.” Author Rachel Naomi Remen wrote, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.” Imagine how many problems we could solve if we all just stopped being human for a moment and instead started acting a bit more like whales.

Rating: 5/5

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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The House on Mango Street   

Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The house on Mango Street wasn’t what Papa had talked about when he held up a lottery ticket or what Mama had dreamed up for our bedtime stories. Instead, it was small and red with crumbling bricks and no front yard. Even a nun, who was passing by the house one day, couldn’t believe that it was actually the home of little Esperanza. It was at that moment that Esperanza knew that she had to have a house. One with stairs on the inside and a front yard with grass. One that was filled with quiet. Quiet like snow. A home all her own.

Published in 1984, Cisneros’s celebrated The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story about 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. Comprising of 44 vignettes and being just a squeak above a novelette, Cisneros introduces us to several memorable characters who are the color, texture, and fabric that make up Mango Street. We meet the rotten Vargas kids, Alicia who studies to avoid a life in a factory or behind a rolling pin, Darius the philosopher, Sally with the Cleopatra eyes, and Geraldo who was so much more than a shiny shirt and green pants. But as is the nature of vignettes, our knowledge and connection with these and other characters are superficial and barely scratch the surface. Like a movie trailer, we get the highlights, but not the heart.

In her introduction—which I loved and wished that the rest of the book had been this immersive and rooted—Cisneros wrote that she wanted to write a book “that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or what comes after.” I think that was the biggest barrier for me to overcome. While accomplishing her goal, Cisneros sacrificed a connectedness that would have given readers more than just a superficial glance at characters who did have a before and, more importantly, an after. I wanted to know Sally’s after, who married to be free yet ultimately found herself in a different prison. I wanted to understand Geraldo’s before in hopes that someone would miss this charismatic young man who loved to dance.

Although I miss the richness of the novel that could have been, I can’t deny the beautiful and artful way Cisneros evokes raw emotion and vivid images with just a few well-placed words. She describes a family who enters a garden area between her building and a brick wall as “a family who speak like guitars”, equates the entry into womanhood by describing the sudden development of hips as “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?”, and recalls meeting her three aunts as “one with laughter like tin and one with eyes of a cat and one with hands like porcelain.”

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a Danish businessman and the former CEO of the Lego Group, said, “Any creative people are finding that creativity doesn’t grow in abundance, it grows from scarcity.” Now, he was talking about Legos and how having more doesn’t necessarily equate to more creativity, but it does show how a novella, not quite 18,000 words, is beautiful and creative because of its scarcity rather than in spite of it.

Rating: 4/5

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The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

The Great Brain (Great Brain #1) 

John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the territory of Utah officially became a state. But to the 2,500 residents in the town of Adenville, it was the year of The Great Brain’s reformation. Having The Great Brain as a brother has its ups and downs. Just ask his little brother J.D. It was nearly impossible to catch any sunlight while constantly in the shadow of such magnificence and brilliance. Expert eavesdropping, a perilous cave rescue, and the great whiskey raid were the works of one Tom Dennis Fitzgerald and his intellect was the stuff of legend. But, has The Great Brain finally changed his scheming ways? Why, that would be bigger news than the day Adenville got its very first water closet!

Published in 1967, The Great Brain is the first in an eight-book series and loosely based on author John D. Fitzgerald’s own childhood experiences. The story is narrated by the Fitzgerald’s youngest son John (J.D.) who is seven—going on eight. This is one of those books that I have equally strong feelings of delight and horror. With a publisher-recommended reading age of 8 and up, it is important to note that this is a 1967 book and times they did change (and boy, did they ever)!

Setting aside the starting reading age (which I would emphatically suggest bumping up to at least 12), this book deals with some heavy societal and political issues largely centering around ethnic prejudice and hatred. Fitzgerald details how Adenville’s first Greek immigrant family (their son in particular) was the object of brutal bullying and verbal assault. The author also goes into a multi-page diatribe regarding the treatment of Jews compared to other ethnicities within their community and how a “beloved” member of their town somehow slipped through the cracks with devastating consequences. This wasn’t just a matter of negligence or ignorance, it was apathy and this entire topic—and its importance and relevance—is sadly bound to go right over a young reader’s scope of understanding.

Also, Tom is really nothing more than an opportunistic schemer. Would a young reader delight in his antics and ability to always find a way to one-up his friends? It seems so since this book not only gave way to seven successors, but earned Fitzgerald The Young Reader’s Choice Award for children’s literature in both 1976 and 1978. Shows what I know. Tom’s ability to do good does benefit those around him who learn how to defend themselves and develop a sense of self-worth, but the fact that he always seeks an “angle” puts him one step above a sleezy snake oil salesman. The upside is that Tom truly does have his beneficiaries’ best interests in mind and eventually experiences a moral awakening, but we know it doesn’t last long and future books probably contain more of the same self-serving behavior.   

Perhaps THE most disturbing part of this book comes near the end when John is helping another boy end his life because he wants to prove himself to be a good pal. The various ways the boys plot and attempt to carry out this horrific act is beyond boyish hijinx and madcap mayhem. I can’t possibly think what was going on in the author’s head that he thought this would be appropriate material to print for a child of eight. I was a child of the 70s and I wouldn’t look at this entire passage as merely being slapstick fun (Oopsies! THAT didn’t work. Let’s try this!) I shudder to think just HOW much of this book falls into the “own childhood experience” category.

My overall impression is that this book didn’t age well and should be left for a much older and morally mature reader. And even though my brain is not-so-great, I know there are more appropriate books out there for young readers that teach the virtues of friendship, the value of community, the strength of family, and the satisfaction you get from doing good with the expectation of receiving absolutely nothing in return.

Rating: 3/5

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The Borrowers Avenged (The Borrowers #5) by Mary Norton

The Borrowers Avenged (The Borrowers #5) 

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fantasy)

In shock over the loss of their trio of moneymakers, the Platters plan to stake out Little Fordham to recapture the little people who have inexplicably escaped their attic prison. Meanwhile, Miss Menzies is distraught at the sudden absence of her friend Arrietty and the family that she’s come to love. Knowing that no good deed goes unpunished, Pod understands the immediacy of getting his family as far away from Little Fordham as possible before those nasty Platters return because luck and ingenuity will not save them next time. With the discovery of a permanent home—along with a new borrower—it seems that things are finally as they should be for our favorite little family, but their safety may once again be at risk when the Platters learn that a credible “finder” is in their midst and with the help of a bit of clothing left behind by Homily, could the Clock’s days of freedom be coming to an end?

Written twenty-one years after her fourth book in The Borrowers series, The Borrowers Avenged fails to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors and is the weakest and most disappointing of Norton’s five-book series. I entered with high hopes and was not disappointed as the beginning indicated that Norton hadn’t missed a day when she picked up the story of our beloved Clock family. However, with its overly descriptive text (the story loses valuable momentum quite a few times throughout the book), the introduction of three other-worldly characters who added no value and served no purpose to the overall story, and an ending that is perhaps the bleakest and darkest I have ever read in a children’s book, it seems that Norton was writing more to her original fans (who had aged 20+ years since her last installment putting them in their early 30s) rather than to the book’s intended audience of readers aged eight to twelve. Norton even goes so far as to introduce the topic of suicide in her book, which goes beyond the pale. I’m not sure why Norton waited so long to conclude her series (which was really unnecessary), but after reading this book, not only did her characters deserve better, but her fans did as well.

There were some bright spots in this last book: the reunion with the Hendrearys; the rekindled relationship between Arrietty and her young cousin Timmus; and the introduction of Peagreen Overmantle who forces Homily to again rethink her past prejudices and appreciate that trustworthy and dependable allies come from the unlikeliest of places. Despite these, The Borrowers Avenged lacks the magic, wonder, and youthful spirit that we’ve come to expect in the series and should serve as a reminder that sometimes revenge isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Rating: 3/5

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A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (Juvenile Fiction)

A Boy Called Bat (Bat Trilogy #1) 

Elana K. Arnold (Juvenile Ficiton)

Bixby Alexander Tam, nicknamed Bat, has a long list of things he doesn’t like: unspoken rules, people rumpling his hair, eating leftovers, food smashed together, cheese that has to be sliced, loud sounds, and waiting. But one thing that Bat DOES like is the orphaned newborn skunk that his veterinarian mother brings home one day. Although it’s hard for Bat to connect with people, he forms an instant bond with the kit and silently promises the animal that he will figure out a way to keep him. With the help of his third-grade teacher, Bat forms a plan that’s sure to make the baby skunk a permanent member of the Tam family. Afterall, Bat made a promise and he never lies. Lying makes him feel itchy…another thing that Bat doesn’t like.

A Boy Called Bat is the first in a series of three books in the Bat Trilogy. Written with candor and warmth, Arnold gives young readers a story of a boy on the autism spectrum who struggles to regulate his emotions, understand non-verbal social cues, navigate unexpected circumstances, and just adjust to life in general. We wince as we watch Bat say things without thinking, misread body language, and overreact to situations that all end in awkward and painful outcomes. Arnold accurately captures the nuances that are associated with the autism spectrum such as dealing with the subtleties of sarcasm or taking idioms literally. Spoken language along with unspoken facial cues and body gestures are just everyday landmines that Bat has to constantly tiptoe around with one wrong step spelling disaster.

Although I am a sucker when it comes to brother-and-sister relationships that are all cuddles and kisses and unicorn wishes, I did appreciate Arnold portraying Bat’s sister Janie realistically. She often loses her temper with Bat, she knows exactly what buttons to push when she wants a reaction out of him (and she DOES push), and yes, she thinks he’s weird. But Janie’s human and you really can’t fault her for wanting a predictable trip out or just ONE boring dinner with no drama. Yes, she’s a stinker because she knows better than anyone else how many things are out of Bat’s control, but I think that’s why I like her so much. She’s every sibling out there who assumes the dual roles of defender and detractor and it’s rewarding and exhausting at the same time. For every Bat, there’s one or two Janies and they deserve attention, patience, and understanding as well.

I think my favorite part of the book was how Bat viewed his mom: “Then he followed Mom through the door that separated the waiting room from the back and watched as she took her white coat from its hook. She put it on, and then Mom was Dr. Tam. A veterinarian. Better than a superhero.” Valerie Tam wasn’t a superhero because she was able to make sick animals well. She was extraordinary because she championed and believed in a boy who thought himself to be less than perfect. Parents of neurodiverse children put on a cape every single day—not because they want to, but because they have to because they know exactly who they’re fighting for and what they’re fighting against and they won’t ever, ever give up. Take that, Superman.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett (Juvenile Fantasy)

My Father’s Dragon (The Tales of My Father’s Dragon Series #1)  

Ruth Stiles Gannett (Juvenile Fantasy)

Elmer Elevator wants to fly more than anything in the world and will do whatever it takes to have that chance. He soon gets his wish when a wet alley cat tells him of an imprisoned baby dragon held on Wild Island. Soon, Elmer has packed his knapsack and secretly stowed away on a ship headed to the Island of Tangerina. But Wild Island is dangerous and no one has ever come back alive from it. No one except for a wet alley cat. Loaded up with some lollipops, hair ribbons, rubber bands, an empty grain sack, and a few other inconsequential items, Elmer is off on the adventure of a lifetime, but can he survive the dangers of Wild Island AND rescue the dragon? For a chance to fly, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

My Father’s Dragon is the first in The Tales of My Father’s Dragon series by Ruth Stiles Gannett. It’s a short and fanciful story showcasing the cleverness and ingenuity of a young boy that is retold by his son. At seventy-four pages, it’s a fast read full of slapstick scenarios and delightful dilemmas. The book has a recommended reading age of 8 to 12, but if it’s read aloud, younger readers can enjoy Elmer’s antics as well—which I highly encourage. Although Elmer does encounter tigers, a lion, crocodiles, a gorilla, and wild boars that are ALL trying to eat him, these incidents are silly rather than scary and children will revel in how Elmer manages to slip out of one precarious predicament after another.

The only things better than the story are the wonderful illustrations by Gannett’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett. Her black-and-white, grease-crayon drawings are a wonderful complement to her stepdaughter’s words and give life to Elmer and the inhabitants of Wild Island. What I loved most was the map included at the beginning of the book. It not only labels the islands and ports, but it also shows readers where Elmer slept, met the fisherman, stopped to talk to tortoises, and other events that happened along his journey. This added attention to detail truly allows readers to become a part of Gannett’s world as they follow Elmer’s path in his quest to find and rescue the dragon.

One of my favorite quotes on bravery is this one by American journalist Franklin P. Jones: Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid. And although this is a whimsical and silly fantasy book, it gives us a valuable lesson of how a young boy pushed aside his fear and used wit rather than weapons to outsmart his foes and help a fellow creature in need. On second thought, there’s nothing really silly about that after all.

Rating: 5/5

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The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom (Adult Inspirational)

The Time Keeper

Mitch Albom (Adult Inspirational Fiction)

Before he was Father Time, he had been just another human: a boy who loved to run and had best friends; a young man in love with a passion for measuring things; and a man who had a wife and children. His name was Dor and he was different…and God had noticed for God realized how one different child could change the world. But Dor had angered God and would endure thousands of years of isolation before being released back to the world where he must help two souls: a troubled teen with too much time and a wealthy businessman with too little. To finally finish what he had started, Dor must now teach these two very different people the value of time and to understand the reason why God limits man’s days.

This is the third book by Albom that I’ve read and his words continue to enlighten, encourage, and inspire me. Albom relays how precious time is through Dor, teenaged Sarah Lemon, and elderly Victor Delmonte. The Time Keeper’s short chapters and sparse prose may give readers a false sense that this will be a “quick read”. On the contrary, Albom’s measured words give his story weight and substance that allow readers the opportunity to absorb and ruminate the messages he conveys spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. Albom is clearly a man of faith, but his words of encouragement and hope appeal to people across all faiths or who are in varying stages of their own religious journey.

Albom adequately develops both Sarah’s and Victor’s characters so that we understand their situation and the reason behind their actions; however, Sarah is by far the more sympathetic of the two given her naivete, background, and age. Her circumstance is more relatable to the vast majority of readers since most have experienced the sting and humiliation of being spurned by a first love while few know what it’s like to live a lifestyle where money truly is no object. Although we may be more emotionally drawn to one character than the other, we share in their common desire to either make any promise or strike any bargain in order to have more power over time.  

Although Albom peppers his book with countless memorable quotes, I’m compelled to end this review with a quote from John Lennon who said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Dor, Sarah, and Vincent all spent their precious days planning, calculating, predicting, and formulating circumstances or situations to their individual benefit. Whether trying to control time, start a romance, or stop an illness, all were missing out on the now and failed to realize the effect their obsessions were having on the ones that loved them most. And although time does indeed fly, we should all take a little comfort in knowing that not only are we in charge of our own course, but also with whom we choose to soar.

Rating: 5/5

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (Juvenile Fiction)

Amal Unbound

Aisha Saeed (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Amal belongs to one of the more prosperous families in her Punjabi village in Pakistan and dreams of becoming a teacher. She vividly remembers that particular afternoon: the smell of the chalkboard, the students chattering outside the door, and talking poetry with her teacher, Miss Sadia. Little did she know that that would be her last day at school. While at the market, Amal encounters and challenges the son of the village’s powerful landlord—a slight that would have unimaginable consequences. She is forced to pay off her family’s debt by working on the Khan estate where she begins to realize the full extent of the family’s vast wealth and power. Amal must summon all her strength and courage to change the status quo because if everyone decided that nothing could ever change, then nothing ever would.

Amal Unbound is a captivating read and its short chapters allow readers to absorb the important messages and lessons that fill each page. The societal and cultural limitations that Amal brings to light accurately reflect her life and the obstacles that she faces. The idea of “fairness” is a major theme throughout the book and she constantly recalls her father’s words of life’s unfairness whenever she is at a crossroads. This is a hard thing to reconcile given the number of things totally out of her control: her sex (Maybe then I would not have learned that they thought being a girl was such a bad thing.), her birth order (Why did this random chance [being the eldest] have to dictate so much of my destiny?), and political power (How many lives had this man upended? Why did no one stop him?).

Saeed delivers a story about an ordinary girl who does an extraordinary thing…she has the audacity to speak out for change. Amal quickly realizes that life comes down to a series of choices. Choices that she doesn’t want to make or feels that she lacks the courage to do so. But her teacher at the literacy center reminds her, “Making choices even when they scare you because you know it’s the right thing to do—that’s bravery.”

In her Author’s Note, Saeed shares the story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot at point-blank range by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. Her life was also a series of choices, and her courageous advocacy led her to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala once said, “We were scared, but our fear was not as strong as our courage.” Amal was also scared, but sacrificed her own safety to bring about justice. In the end, she proved just how powerful a servant girl could be once she freed herself from the ties that bound her.  

Rating: 5/5

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (Adult Fiction)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sherman Alexie (Adult Fiction)

Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven received the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best first book of fiction and its short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” was the inspiration for the 1998 film Smoke Signals, whose screenplay was written by Alexie. This is a collection of short stories which can best be described as autobiographical fiction as Alexie himself admits in the Introduction of the 20th Anniversary Edition, “This book is a thinly disguised memoir.”

Alexie’s novel contains twenty-two short stories (my anniversary edition had two bonus stories: “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”) that detail the dark, hopeless, sometimes comedic, and harsh reality of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation during the 1960s-70s—a period when relations between Native Americans and the federal government were “strained” at best. Alexie acknowledges the push back he received with this stereotypical portrayal of Indians as drunks, recovering drunks, potential drunks, or being six degrees separated from a drunk and matter-of-factly responded to critics with a mere Yeah, but it’s true attitude…and he of all people should know and has more than earned the right to write about it.

All in all, I wish I had connected more with these stories. Maybe it’s just the very nature of short stories that prevented me from bonding with the characters. The stories and its players allowed me to dip my toe into the water when what I really wanted was to totally immerse myself in their world. Just when I thought I was going to be allowed to plunge headfirst into the inviting water, someone would blow the warning whistle reminding me that diving wasn’t allowed, the story was over, and it was time to move on. Denied yet again.

I did enjoy a few of his stories: “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” depicts the futility of trying to escape a preordained future (It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation.); “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (easy to see why this was the basis for a feature film), which has Victor Joseph going to Phoenix to retrieve his father’s ashes with storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying. Take care of each other.); “A Good Story” is a story within a story where Junior Polatkin’s mother encourages him to write a story about something good, a real good story (Because people should know that good things always happen to Indians, too.); and “Witnesses, Secret and Not” where the narrator and his father drive into Spokane to answer questions about a man who went missing ten years ago. On their way home, they see an acquaintance on the cusp of full intoxication and decide to give him some money with no strings attached (That’s how it is. One Indian doesn’t tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments.)

It is obvious that Sherman Alexie is a gifted storyteller and I will definitely be reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been on my To Be Read stack for far too long now. And although this particular work didn’t resonate with me (it’s the magic and mystery of books, folks), it is an important work that explores the hopelessness, possibilities, and reality of life on an Indian reservation told through a witty, authentic, and compassionate lens. In the end, I would like to think that the Lone Ranger and Tonto actually hugged it out after their fistfight, but Alexie would probably just shake his head, call me a hopeless idiot, and then tell me one of his stories about how life actually works. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that as long as he lets me dive in afterwards.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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The Pepins and Their Problems by Polly Horvath (J Fiction)

The Pepins and Their Problems

Polly Horvath (J Fiction)

Being a fairly small family, the Pepins seem to have a rather large amount of problems. From frogs in their shoes to a cow that is suddenly producing lemonade to missing cutlery (where did all the forks go???), there doesn’t appear to be an end to the number of problems the Pepins have. But with the help of a telepathically gifted author and projected suggestions from readers from Pottsville, Pennsylvania to Hughes, Alaska and everywhere in between, there seems to be no problem too big that the Pepins can’t solve. That is until a long-lost Pepin arrives who promises to solve ALL of their problems himself. Could this finally be the end to the Pepins’s problems?

This book is outrageous, outlandish, and out and out ridiculous as Polly Horvath delights readers with a story filled with a cow who takes French and algebra lessons, a dog and cat who not only talk, but have been known to fly about in a motorless aircraft, a very fine neighbor, and a not-so very fine neighbor. We see scarf dances, an elaborate neighbor test, an awkward infatuation with a barbershop pole, and a laboratory that would make even Willy Wonka jealous.

The Pepins and Their Problems has a recommended reading age of 8-12, but I fear that a reader over the age of ten will find this book to be too silly and very frustrating at times since some of the problems the Pepins have can easily be solved with a simple question or plain old common sense. This book would be in its element if read out loud allowing young readers to think over and offer up their own solutions.

The thing I love most about Horvath is that she does not write down to her audience (which I seem to say every time I review one of her books) and this is obvious as she tosses out words such as loquaciousness, perspicacious, ruminatively, progeniture, and amalgamation. Definitely have a dictionary close by…you’re going to need it!

Whether they’re stuck on the roof or dealing with a relative who sucks up breadcrumbs through their nose, the Pepins are ever a loving and close-knit family who look upon their problems as blessings in disguise and realize that a happy family already has as many riches as anyone can hope for. Now who, dear reader, could possibly have a problem with that?

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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