Review of the Day: Singing Hands
Different books have different attitudes when it comes to grabbing your average child reader's attention. Sometimes a children's title, particularly if it happens to be of the historical fiction persuasion, will meander about. It'll lazily traipse its storyline hither and thither, confident that young readers will find the will or the desperation to follow it wheresoever it may go. Then there are books like Delia Ray's, "Singing Hands". You open the book and the first thing you see is a twelve-year-old preacher's daughter of a deaf congregation humming up a storm right smack dab in the middle of her father's communion. THAT wakes your average reader up, and from there on in it keeps a tight headlock on your attention so that all a person can do is read straight through to the end without interruption. That too is Ms. Ray's charm. Any writer can tell a story that has an interesting concept. Few, however, could find a way to wrangle that interest to the ground within the space of a couple opening sentences.
"Up until the summer of 1948, when I was twelve, probably the worst thing I ever did was hum in church". So says Gussie Davis. Gussie and her sisters are the hearing daughters of deaf parents and as such they have an interesting life. Knowing full well the naughtiness of what she does, Gussie hums away like a bandit during her father's services, until the day she is outed by a fellow hearing person visiting that Sunday. Her father takes this to mean that Gussie misses singing and before she knows it our heroine is being bussed off every Sunday to a local hearing Episcopal church. Not long thereafter Gussie starts skipping Sunday school and purloining the collection money. Oh, and did I mention that she also stole a neighbor's old love letter on the sly? Between the hearing world and the deaf one, Gussie's losing her place. It's going to take a trip to a deaf school and a chance to buck the system while there to give this girl the confidence she so desperately needs.
The book takes place in 1948 Birmingham, Alabama, which is a difficult time period to say the least. No responsible writer could ever tackle such a period, no matter what their subject matter, without giving at least a little attention to the prevalent racism of the time. Fellow 1944 North Carolina set children's novel "Blue" by Joyce Moyer Hostetter did a similar thing this year, but in the case of "Blue" the African American subplot felt forced and unnecessary. Here Ray weaves the story of Abe, a deaf black child, smoothly within Gussie's greater tale. Abe is sent, at Gussie's father's suggestion, to a school for black deaf children. The school is separate and cheaper than its white equivalent, allowing Ray to show rather than tell the problems with segregation at the time. Best of all, Gussie is able to view this unfair situation and become infuriated by it without ever feeling like a 21st century girl living in a 20th century novel. No mean feat.
Kudos too to Ray for creating a kid with a conscience who nevertheless keeps doing bad things. Not life threatening things. Nothing things that would necessarily endanger her soul. Just naughty, often awful, things. If character is key then Gussie is o'erflowing with it. Each person in this book is as distinct and individualized as any author could hope to make them. Even Gussie's supposedly saintly father is continually leaving his family and spending a lot more time with people that aren't his kids. No one is perfect here and no one exempt from their own personal flaws. Top notch writing too, by the way. I like reading a writer who has the guts to write sentences like, "With my cheeks still burning, I squeezed the penny in my hand tighter and tighter, as if I could wring blood from copper".
To my mind, children's chapter book fiction relies on a couple essential components. You've got your characters. You've got your skill with the pen itself. And then there is the much maligned and too often underrated sense of humor. All authors should have this. It's a rare and difficult thing to nurture within one's own self, I know. Should any of you writers feel less than up to the task, take a couple pointers from Ms. Ray here. Some of the lighter moments in this book ring of the anecdotes Ray undoubtedly culled from her mother for her book. For example, when one of the girls freaks out at night thinking that there might be a kidnapper in the neighborhood, her deaf mother responds to her late night fear with a mild, "I don't hear anything" and goes back to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a good dry wit.
In her Author's Note at the back of the book, Ray reveals that this book is in many ways her mother's story. Her mother grew up as a hearing daughter of deaf pastoral parents. Ms. Ray has even gone so far to include a picture of the family on which Gussie's family was based. All the characters of the book are there, including a young man that apparently didn't quite make the cut. In this section readers will get a fascinating bit of info on the facts behind the story, including some ways in which deaf people were prejudiced against in the past.
Altogether a fine piece of work. I read a lot of historical fiction in conjunction with my children's librarian job, and much of it is very good and very well written. Few books, however, come across as anything I would have actually liked if I were a kid myself. I think "Singing Hands" may well be the first book this year to strike me as something I'd recommend to my 12-year-old self. Higher praise than that you'd be hard pressed to find.
Notes On the Cover: Bravo, Clarion Press. This may take place in 1948, but you steered clear of the desire to just sepia-tone the whole kerschmozzle (or, worse still, some random photograph of a girl) and leave it at that. A Mr. Matt Manley (great name) has given us this pretty pretty picture of a strong appropriate-for-her-time-period girl standing with her arms crossed. Music is swirling about her in this really lovely combo of cream and blue. Best of all, however, are the overlapping silhouettes in the background, acting out the climax of the book. Classy, yes. But also something a kid might want to pick up. An intriguing cover that looks like somebody cared about giving this book just the right presentation.