Review of the Day: Hugging the Rock
Today we review a title by fellow child lit blogger Susan Taylor Brown. Now before any of you start calling "fowl" and "nepotism", let me just say that I receive books from a wide variety of authors. If I receive a book directly from an author that I'm going to give a negative review, I don't review it at all. If, on the other hand, the book is at all similar to the one Ms. Brown sent me, I respond as I do below. Behold!
Verse novels. Until script novels came along they were the hottest new children’s literature format since kids books became more than didactic screeds. For a while there you couldn’t walk into a library or open a bookstore door without tripping over a pile of these hot new titles. Now the siren call of the verse novel has quieted down and few authors go in for that particular format in as vast a numbers as they did five to ten years ago. But there are always exceptions. “Hugging the Rock” wriggled into my pile of books to read not too long ago, and even though I had many other titles to consider, I decided to give it a shot. That’s the advantage of the verse novel. It’s quick to read and should you find yourself not taking to it, finishing it might entail five or ten minutes of your time, max. In this particular case, however, “Hugging” is a particularly enjoyable read. Dealing with issues as difficult as those found in any Karen Hesse or Sharon Creech book, Brown gives us the story of those who run away and those that stay.
Rachel’s mother ran away. Rachel’s mother ran away while Rachel, her father, and the family dog all watched. It wasn’t entirely out of the blue, but it wasn’t as if the kid could see it coming. All her life her mother has been different from other moms. One minute she’s manic, racing through shopping aisles or wanting to talk all night with her daughter. The next minute she’s locked herself in the bathroom, sobbing and sobbing. So when she leaves, Rachel tries to figure out why. She blames her father, the guy her mother always called, “The Rock”, for his reliability. She blames herself. Maybe there were things she could have done to make her stay. But slowly, very slowly, she and her dad start to get to know one another. Her mother left. Her father stayed. And by getting to know her own past, and by getting to know her own father, Rachel begins to understand exactly how important it is to have a rock in your life.
It’s incredibly rare to have a book written for children where one of the stand up and cheer moments is when the child heroine cuts her mother out of a photograph. I recently read Tony Abbott’s, “Firegirl”, where that same action was done. In Abbott’s case, the cutting is seen at the end of the book to have been a mistake. Here, it’s a moment of strength. The strength to stop caring so much about someone who doesn’t care for you. Hell, it’s downright gutsy to go and create a mother character that seriously does not love her daughter. Name all the books off the top of your head that do this. Hard, isn’t it? Even when mothers are evil or difficult (as in “Bucking the Sarge”, by Christopher Paul Curtis or “The Same Stuff As Stars” by Katherine Paterson”) they still seem to care deeply for their children. And perhaps on some level the mom in this book does too. Just the same, it’s obvious that her bipolar nature keeps her from caring much for the people who care for her. That’s the way of the world, people. Dealing with it is the hard part.
As with any verse novel, one unavoidable question rises up after a reading: Did this book have to be written in the verse format? Would it have benefited from a longer narrative? A little prose, perhaps? But the fact of the matter is that this is a very simple but emotional tale. Brown could have written pages and pages and pages of text. She could have dragged the plot out, thereby boring both the reader and herself. In the form of verse, however, she is able to synthesize every argument down to its most salient points. She’s good with the simple sentences too. When Rachel discovers that her mother never even wanted to have Rachel in the first place and that it was her dad who fought for her existence the book reads, “His fingers rub in a circle / on the back of my hand / almost as if he’s trying to rub wanting me / into my skin”. Good stuff.
Brown is still finding her voice as a writer, but “Hugging the Rock” is an accomplished start. As verse novels go, this one may speak to those kids who are reluctant readers but still want a good and realistic story. A fine novel and a good book to begin with should you ever want to introduce a kid to the wide world of verse novels at all.