Review of the Day: The Mailbox
I've let Poetry Friday down. We had a good three week run there for a while, though. Ah well. The book I'm reviewing today is so doggone good I couldn't wait to post it ASAP. How's that for a recommendation?
Any of you familiar with “booktalks”? This is a skill set cultivated and perfected almost entirely by teen and children’s librarians. The idea is this: You walk into a
classroom. The kids in that classroom are looking at you like you’re some kind of freak and the last thing they want is for you to go bobbing about telling them how simply marvelous the library is. What you need is a little something up your sleeve. Something to get them genuinely interested in the books sitting on the shelves. Hence, the booktalk. It’s basically a trailer or preview for a book. You don’t give away any big plot points and you don’t give them a synopsis of the story. What you do is give them a little taste of what the book can offer them. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s been a really really long time since I found a book I wanted to booktalk more than Audrey Shafer’s, “The Mailbox”. It doesn’t look like much. It has the standard sepia-toned inanimate object photograph so common in children’s bookcovers today. But read the first fourteen pages and then tell me you don’t want to know so much more than the book is telling you. A book for kids that would impress Hitchcock himself, this one.
Twelve-year-old Gabe Culligan’s had a rough life, but things have evened out really nicely for him lately. You see, for years Gabe was a foster kid, shuttled from place to place without a home. Then his social worker found his long-lost Uncle Vernon and things were looking good. Sure, Uncle Vernon’s kind of crusty. He has a prosthetic leg and a gruff manner, but it’s obvious that he and his nephew get along really well. You can’t blame Gabe for not knowing that Vernon would have secrets. So one day, Gabe comes home from school and Uncle Vernon’s dead on the floor. Well what would you do? You can’t blame the kid for not wanting to deal with the situation. The next morning he goes to school like usual and tries not to think about what to do. When he gets home, there’s a note in the mailbox. On one side it says, “I have a secret”. On the other side it says, “Do not be afraid”. But when Gabe comes into the house and finds his uncle’s body has disappeared, he is afraid. Very.
Man, do you have a treat in store for you. If you haven’t read the book yet you’ve no idea how good it’s going to be. To begin with, first time author Audrey Shafer doesn’t come across as first time at all. Her writing is crisp and full of perfectly placed little descriptions. When Gabe discovers his uncle’s body right off the bat he cries. “Messy crying, the kind of crying that leaves you swollen, red, and leaky”. When later he pets his dog at the base of the neck between the shoulders, “He could lose his hands there, then pull his fingers up, like pink fish rising from a bed of soft seaweed”. One more. “Evening, with her blowing skirts of cooling breezes and rustling leaves, swirled her colors, first fiery then deep blue, through the house and around the house”. I marked about four or five more of these great sentences, but I’ll let you off the hook and have you find them on your own when you read the book.
Characters are beautifully defined here as well. First of all, there’s the heroic teacher Mr. Boehm. He has a sense of humor, which makes him suspect. As Gabe knows, teachers that joke are separated into two categories. “Joking teachers were either friendly and open, or closed to all but their own humor, in love with their own voice”. I think we all know that more than teachers alone fit that description. Every person has their own agenda and their own way of doing things in this story. You get a sense of who they are and what they want through Shafer’s writing. And you want good dialogue? Well, I was sad for the death of Uncle Vernon for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps most of all because his comforting bedtime philosophy came out along the lines of, “Scum-lickin’ pus-suckin’ buckets of trouble ken happen whether you’re good or bad. But why git spit by skunk muck? Stay low and steer clear of screw-ups, Gabe”. Sound advice. This what is later referred to as, “the usual scrubbed raw dash of wisdom”.
What I especially appreciated about this book was the arc of the storyline. Here we have Gabe living on his own without a guardian, his dead uncle missing, and a mysterious somebody sending him letters. So many books begin with a good premise then sort of peter out because they can’t maintain their storyline. It’s a lot easier to come up with a cool idea than it is to sustain it. Shafer does both and the ending is so good and so deeply satisfying that you find yourself wanting to start the whole book over for a second read when you’ve finished.
There were some problems with the book, I’m afraid. Fortunately they were all little things. The story sort of assumes that all the kids reading it are intimately familiar with “Of Mice and Men”. As such, it keeps talking about Lenny without mentioning that he was a character in that particular book. Definitely expect a number of confused head-scratching kids at these parts. You might find the ultimate solution to Gabe’s problem a little pat as well, but it’s now wholly unexpected. Shafer can pretty much lead you wherever she wants to go after a while. I doubt many will object.
If a book could be called “good” by the number of post-its I’ve placed on its pages to remember later, then this book set a new record. A whopping fourteen post-it notes all lurking in strategically important areas. Fortunately, “The Mailbox”, won’t have to rely on my say-so alone. Expect it to be one of the surprise hits of this or any other year. The dark horse. It's a remarkable debut and strong start to the career of a woman destined to be one of children’s literature’s greats. Now go read it.
On shelves October 10th.