Fuse #8

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Review of the Day: Penny From Heaven

I work with four other children’s librarians in New York City’s finest public children’s literature collection. One day a co-worker begins to tell me about “Penny From Heaven”. She loves it. She adores it. She cannot get enough of it and here, take a copy, cause it’s a wonderful wonderful title. I look at it. It’s by Jennifer L. Holm, best known at this particular moment in time as the author of “Our Only May Amelia”. Holm is one of those rare authors that write a first novel and knock it clean out of the park. Though I never read it, “Amelia” garnered itself some pretty fancy awards, including a highly coveted Newbery Honor. As with every first novelist though, it takes a second and third novel to determine whether or not that author is a star or a one-hit-wonder. At this moment in time, certain librarians all around the country are weeping, laughing, and shrieking in joy over “Penny From Heaven”. And admittedly, it is quite a good read.

Penny doesn’t have a father, but she has the next best thing. A gigantic Italian-American family with more uncles than she can count and more love than she knows what to do with. When Penny’s mother married into the Falucci clan it was a classic case of a WASP out of place. After her father’s death, her mother and grandparents do not mingle with her dad’s crew and vice-versa. Now Penny’s about to turn twelve and all sorts of interesting things are happening. She’s beginning to notice boys and to chafe under her mother’s overprotective nature. She has a summer job and is getting into more and more trouble with her cousin Frankie. Her dog dies, her hair gets paint stuck in it, and her mother has started to date the least cool fellow in the world: the milkman. When Penny gets involved in a particularly gruesome accident, however, she begins to learn the truth behind her father’s mysterious death and to learn a little more about the people who love her so much.

It’s interesting to note that there have been a lot of children’s books published in 2006 that look back at the early 1950s. There was Guus Kuijer’s, “The Book of Everything” and Karen Cushman’s drop-dead-gorgeous, “The Loud Silence of Francine Green”. Some have speculated that with our current government engaging in wire-taps and scary surveillance measures, authors are looking back at the time of McCarthyism and drawing some distinct parallels. “Penny From Heaven” isn’t like that, though. The book takes place in 1953, sure, but its focus is squarely centered on a less publicized atrocity of the era that I’d wager not a lot of adults know a lot about, and certainly not many children. Drawing much of her factual information from Lawrence DiStasi’s, “Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II”, we learn all about the ways in which Italian Americans were beaten down during the 1940s and even 50s for their country’s role in WWII. In Holm’s excellent Author’s Note we learn that during World War II, “Franklin Roosevelt signed Proclamation 2527, designating 600,000 non-naturalized Italians ‘enemy aliens’”. This sets up the inherent tragedy of the story and the mystery that Penny finds herself unraveling towards its end.

Recently there was a big old brouhaha over a children’s book (that shall remain nameless) that talked about an Italian-American family in, what some considered, a derogatory fashion. I think it is safe to say that Holm will never have such an accusation lobbed at her head. With her characters living in New Jersey, it would be easy to fall into the trap of presenting the Italians along stereotypical lines. But there isn’t a gangster amongst this crew and what few stereotypes you do find (a grandmother who keeps telling the kids to eat up) are tempered with the clarity of Holm’s writing. In many ways the book reads like a tempered version of a Richard Peck novel. There’s harmless mischief and kids getting into trouble (i.e. late night treasure hunts, swimming in a public pool, and a dog that sees the world as its bathroom) but somehow it never comes across as rude or crude. Chalk that one up to Holm. I’ve always maintained that the best books for kids are the ones that stir at least a little humor into their tales, and Holm certainly has gobs of the stuff to spare. Though you wouldn’t call, “Penny From Heaven” laugh-out-loud funny, it’s consistently amusing and droll. For example, when Penny is getting dressed up for an event and her arm is in a sling, “Frankie has the bright idea of twining flowers all around my sling, which looks sort of fancy, or sort of like something Tarzan would do, depending on how you look at it”.

What I can’t quite figure out is whether or not this is a book that kids will like as much as adults already do. To answer this I took a quick gander at the reviews of “Our Only May Amelia” as written by children on Amazon. Though there were certainly a couple moans and groans, by and large responses to the book were positive. “Penny From Heaven” also has the added benefit of engaging in Tom Sawyeresque mischief and fun that will strike kids today as amusing. There’s a section in this story where Penny gets to go and see a Brooklyn Dodgers game that will strike anyone reading it (even not-so-hot baseball fans like myself) as heavenly.

Many authors have lately been drawing on family histories and their roles in history so as to tell excellent children’s books. Like “Penny From Heaven”, Sheila P. Moses’s, “The Legend of Buddy Bush” was one of the first to include actual photographs of the people that characters in the book were based on. On the Italian-American end of the spectrum, Donna Jo Napoli’s, “The King of Mulberry Street” goes a little farther back in time but rests just as squarely on historical record and family legend. Such books usually come across as unusually well-researched and written. “Penny From Heaven” is no exception. A fine fine novel, a great read-aloud, and an in-depth look at a time in history that has gotten too little attention until now. Holm knocks it out of the park again.

On shelves July 25th.

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