Review of the Day: Donutheart
Sue Stauffacher, a Michigan native to rival the likes of Lynne Rae Perkins, is a darling of librarians and teachers nationwide. Bursting onto the children’s literary scene with the can’t-recommend-it-enough, Donuthead, Stauffacher came out swinging and hasn’t had a bum book to her name yet. All the more reason to feel nervous about sequels, then. In many a librarian’s mind, “Donuthead”, takes on a kind of global significance. It’s the funny kids book that earns instant and unequivocal loyalty. So when I, personally, heard that there was going to be a sequel and that it was called Donutheart, I thrilled to the very core of my bones. I was also deeply frightened. If it wasn’t as good as its predecessor, was I going to have to rethink my single-minded Stauffacher-love? Happily the answer is an emphatic, “nuh-uh”. Admittedly, “Donutheart”, doesn’t have the heartwrenching punch of its predecessor. On the other hand, it’s still one of the best danged children’s books of this or any other year.
Everyone’s favorite sensitive, asymmetrical guy is back. Franklin Delano Donuthead is just as fixated on measuring his arms and legs every night, washing his hands three times to the tune of Happy Birthday, and calling up his favorite chief statistician at the Washington D.C. National Safety Department whenever he gets a chance. Because of earlier events, however, he is also the good friend and perpetual buddy of Sarah Kervick. Sarah has become particularly adept at figure skating and the two have worked out a system. Donuthead will keep her grades above a 2.0 and Sarah will protect him from bullies. Now, however, our extraordinarily stressed narrator has a whole new world to navigate. Middle school. From boys bathrooms to a teacher with an expectoration problem, Franklin is unprepared for this world of woes. But when Sarah starts hiding a problem from him and his mother, it's up to our hero to make the ultimate of sacrifices. He’s going to ride a bus. Brace yourselves, everybody. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
In this book Stauffacher also has the chance to explore a fabulous character from an entirely new angle: Donuthead in love. It’s a simultaneously horrific and fascinating idea. Franklin is just hitting puberty and he’s found the girl of his dreams. The comic potential here is through the roof and you can bet your sweet bippy that Staufffacher makes the most of it. He may be wise beyond his years in some areas (morbid areas, as his mom might say), but Franklin is just like any other kid when it comes to making conversation with a girl. Of course, he’s a bit more eloquent. Franklin has always spoken like a 45-year-old man, but that’s neither here nor there. Some kids are just like that.
It’s Franklin’s humor (and, by extension, Stauffacher’s) that makes the book such a pleasant read. Here’s Donuthead on football players: “They’ve been drinking hormone-laden milk since infancy”. And consider the fate of Franklin and his mother’s beau. When the fellow dating Franklin’s mom tries to connect with the boy, you can tell he’s done his homework, “ ‘We should spend a little time together, you and me ... You know...’ He scratched his chest, thinking. ‘Uh ... maybe pick up some health food and ... I don’t know. Hit the museum?’ ”. It may not sound like much, but trust me. This guy’s coming up with the only things he can think of. Stauffacher also earns extra points for the guard dog in this book who attacks when you recite the Michigan slogan, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you”. Just don’t recite the Nebraska state motto, though. Then he goes in for the kill. Though I, personally, think the kill should have come with New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live free or die!”, but that’s just me.
As with all sequels, there’s no way to avoid comparing the second book in the series to the first. When I think of “Donuthead”, I think of the last scene. Franklin on the ice, reaching out for Sarah’s hand having broken through his own neurosis. That image still gives my poor little heart a firm punch in the chest whenever I imagine it. The last scene in “Donutheart” is different. It’s satisfying, but doesn’t carry the same kick. The book as a whole is almost a more mature beast than its predecessor. Donuthead is growing up and changing. He’s learning how to care for other people, which for him is quite a feat. I love how these books are wonderful examples of what an unreliable narrator is. When Donuthead says something, you might think it makes sense at first. But think about it for any given amount of time and it's clear that Franklin’s logic is not always our own. In the end, this doesn’t deliver the shocking heart-stopping love of its predecessor. It just inspires love.
As in Harry Sue, Stauffacher shows her hand and displays her love of “The Wizard of Oz”, the book. I think few American fiction writers working in children’s literature today have done as much as this woman to promote Baum's best beloved. And perhaps few children’s books have as good a chance of being remembered years and years from now than Staufffacher’s body of work. “Donutheart” is a wonderful, comfortable, delightful read that is bound to be enjoyed by vast hoards of children, teachers, and librarians alike. A great find for any fan of the original and a testament to Stauffacher’s prowess in the literary field.
On shelves October 10th.