Fuse #8

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Review of the Day: The Wonder Kid

You’re going to elicit a range of different thoughts from an adult when you ask them what they picture when you mention the 1950s. Some will think of the racism prevalent in America at the time. Others will remember the post-war peace that followed. Some may even remember the Red Scare and all that that entailed. And a few might remember polio. It’s one of those diseases that’s distinctly American and really made its presence known in the 40s and the 50s. Two books for children have been published in 2006 that discuss polio and the full effects of the disease. One was Joyce Hostetter’s, “Blue”, which looked at polio during WWII. The other is George Harrar’s, “The Wonder Kid” circa 1954. Tying together the story of a boy’s growth, his father’s disapproval, and the comic book golden years, Harrar’s book is not the most original piece of historical fiction you’ll run across, but it’s certainly an enjoyable read.

Does your father have a piece of shrapnel still in his arm from WWII? Jesse James’s father does. He’s just that kind of guy. He's a veteran of a massive war, a fan of cowboy shows, and Jesse’s toughest critic. There just isn’t anything in the world that kid can do to please his dad enough. After all, it’s not Jesse’s fault that he was born small and shrimpy. When it gets right on down to it, the only person who really understands Jesse is his grandfather. Then 1954 rolls around, Gramps dies, and Jesse comes down with polio. Now with the help of a girl from school and his own drawings, Jesse’s going to have to be able to not only face this crippling disease, but finally confront his own dad in the process.

It’s a good story on the whole. Harrar is better than some at making the 1950s seem as real and contemporary as any time period. Jesse seems like a kid who’d fit into any age or era. Also, Harrar is also adept at showing just how harrowing it can be to live with a father as unpredictable and changeable as Jesse’s. Of course, not a whole heckuva lot happens in this book. There’s death and growth and polio, but Jesse rarely seems to leave the house this book and the reader feels at times as if they’re watching a play on the stage. The action rarely requires one to leave Jesse’s bedroom, for good or for ill. It's "Rear Window" without needing to be.

The book also requires that Jesse’s father come across as a villain for most of the book and then soften into an understandable human being by the story’s close. Before Jessie and Mr. James reach any kind of an understanding, his pop really does seem like your stereotypical tough guy dad. The kind who’d try to make you walk around if you got polio. Eventually Jesse discovers that his father wasn’t always the rough n’ tough fellow he makes himself out to be. In spite of that discovery, however, I fear for Mr. James’s reaction should Jesse ever decide that he wanted to spend the rest of his life drawing comic books. Of course, it would take quite a bit of space for Mr. Harrar as an author to convince us that Mr. James was an okay guy. The book doesn’t seem to have space for that, however, so it never really happens.

Actually, I wouldn’t have minded a little more of a concentration on comic books of the time period. Artist Anthony Winiarski provides the book with the vary occasional line drawing. I suppose the publisher didn’t want to these images to detract from the overall story, but they really come across as too sparse. Later, when Jesse is able to start selling his own comic strips to the local paper, the versions of those same strips we see in the book certainly look like something a kid might draw, but they’re reproduced way too small here. Anyone who’s seen comic strips from the past knows that they read much larger back then than they do today. Also, since the strips are so small here, the reader has a very hard time figuring out what they’re about without having to read the explanation in the story. A person might be able to believe that a kid could sell a comic strip to a paper, but probably not this one.

It’s a nice book, of course. Harrar is careful to include some very interesting polio information at the back (including the fact that polio may have been around 3,500 years ago). And I think the story gives a sense of immediacy to the 50s that some titles might lack. Still, if you’d like an alternative look at that particular era, try checking out Jennifer Holm’s, “Penny From Heaven” or Karen Cushman’s, “The Loud Silence of Francine Green”.

Notes On the Cover: I like this one. Though I hadn’t read much buzz about it, there was something about the dot matrix design here that kept me from relegating the book to my someday-I-might-get-around-to-it pile. It looks like a slightly watered down Chip Kidd design, but with just enough of a comic booky edge to encourage the average child’s hand to reach for it. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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