Fuse #8

Friday, September 15, 2006

Review of the Day: Small Steps

You may have noticed that I’m reviewing a lot of older titles. Basically, I’m trying to read all the 2006 published books from January to December with a swift and sure eye. That means that a couple January publications, like “Small Steps” here, fell through the cracks and have only been read by myself right now. I apologize for not giving you up-to-the-minute reviews of books that won’t come out for another 5-8 months. It’ll happen again soon. I promise.

Put yourself in Louis Sachar’s shoes. You’ve been writing children’s books for a number of years now and one day divine inspiration hits you and you come up with what could easily be called the greatest children’s book of the last 25 years, “Holes”. It sweeps the nation, gets a coveted Newbery Award, and is subsequently on every required reading list in the USA from now until doomsday. Now it’s time to write a sequel. You do so and it falls into the lap of an average everyday children’s librarian and sometime reviewer. And unbeknownst to you, Louis Sachar, you have just placed this perfectly nice graduate of an MLIS program in a bit of a pickle. Ideally, I want to be the kind of person who judges every title at hand on a one-on-one basis. I want to pretend that I’ve never read anything else by this author and that the book I am reading is its own separate entity. But with a book that has even the slightest connection to “Holes”, this charade becomes almost impossible. “Holes” was a force of nature in and of itself, and “Small Steps”, while a perfectly nice book, cannot even be breathed in the same breath as its predecessor. My advice? Give “Small Steps” to someone who hasn’t read “Holes” yet.

His name is Armpit. Okay, that’s not exactly true. His name is Theodore but back at Camp Green Lake he acquired his current nickname. Now he’s out, finishing high school, and he has a pretty great job doing landscape work after school. That is, until X-Ray shows up. Another former Camp Green Lake inmate, X-Ray has a ticket scalping scheme that he’s sure will earn beaucoup de bucks for the both of them. That is, if Armpit’s willing to put up the cash. Aiding in this wacky investment, our hero is soon engaged in a series of events that culminate with him befriending/dating Kaira DeLeon. Kaira, for the record, is the greatest pop star alive, but by growing close to her Armpit is having a hard time putting his other troubles behind him. And when Kaira’s unscrupulous manager wants to use Armpit’s record to his advantage, the kid may be headed for deep trouble indeed.

It is a little hard to figure out why Armpit, who comes off as such a sweetie here, ever got sent to Camp Green Lake in the first place. There are some references a popcorn incident, but they’re brief. The advantage to this, though, is that Sachar's brevity on the subject certainly makes it clear that Armpit is just an average joe caught up in a racist system. And Mr. Sachar’s willingness to talk about race in this manner comes across as immensely refreshing, I have to say. So many children’s authors pussyfoot around the issue, maybe bringing it up if the book is set in the past. Sachar, on the other hand, is willing to point out that if a large black teen is walking down the street, there are going to be people who cross to the other side. That said, he did it better in “Holes”. “Holes”, showed racism, both subtle and blatant. It managed to tie in the entire American system of racism from slavery times onward. “Small Steps”, falls far more on the blatant side of the equation. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It just means the story feels less whole.

Aside from the topic of racism, this is also a book willing to make reference to the current situation in Iraq. Moreover, it makes more than one sly reference to the most common bit of racist currency available today: Anti-Muslim feeling. When Armpit and X-Ray feel that the cops are on to their ticket scheme, they manage to try to shine that attention away from themselves and onto a non-existent character named Habib. Good old turban wearing, ticket scalping Habib. The unspoken thought is that if they name an imaginary Muslim to be the real scalper, maybe the cops will feel that there are bigger fish to fry somewhere. It doesn't work, but it manages to say loads about how X-Ray and Armpit's minds work.

Still, there were structural problems with the book. It was very odd how Sachar kept tossing the point of view hither and thither throughout the text with very little rhyme or reason. One minute we’re in Armpit’s head, another minute we’re following Kaira, and another we are in the bedroom of the girl Armpit likes at school. And I hope you like figures, by the way. This book has a whole heaping helpful of economics in it that may cause the average set of eyeballs to glaze over for a moment or two. Finally, the bad guy’s scheme in this book is a teensy bit flawed. Kaira’s manager intends to have his star charge hurt. The only problem is, he himself hired her bodyguard. So when that guard shows up, it shouldn't be as great a surprise to the manager as the book makes it out to be. Altogether, these are small qualms, but the book had the potential to feel so much tighter and whole. They rankle with the reading.

In the end I kind of felt like, “Small Steps”, was trying to be more of a teen read than “Holes” ever was. Always taking into account that the "Holes" readership grerw older, this makes a fair amount of sense. And teen-like elements, such as references to sex, are nice and straightforward but I suspect the real readership will still turn out to be “Holes” lovers of the younger stripe. For the most part, “Small Steps” is able to find its footing and doesn’t slip up too often. It also has Sachar’s trademark readability quotient, which doesn’t hurt things any. From sentence one the book is go go go. So while I find that I cannot block the memory of “Holes” completely from my mind, I at least can give “Small Steps” a wary thumbs up. It could be better, but it’s pretty darn sweet as it is.

Notes On the Cover: To be honest, I wasn’t much of a fan of the original “Holes” cover. This one I actually like better, though it confuses me a bit. The idea of have small cut-out footprints reveal story elements was a good one. Ditto having them on the front and the back cover. Only here’s the deal, I can’t figure out what these pictures are supposed to represent. I’m pretty sure the one’s on the cover are the grass from the lawn service and a glimpse of one of the scalped tickets. So I puzzled over the back cover as well, then thought about removing it altogether to see what lay underneath. And boy oh boy am I glad I did. For reasons I will never truly understand, Delacorte decided that it would be a good idea to hide the coolest series of cover images I’ve seen to date underneath an enormously dull casing. And that mumbley sound you’re hearing? That’s me praying hard that the publisher will have the good sense to make this image the actual paperback cover.

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