Review of the Day: Wabi
Boy! What a great book!
My reviews tend to be long lengthy affairs utilizing words like “the text” and “metaphor” and who knows what all. Now I just finished “Wabi” by Joseph Bruchac and I’m battling a near overwhelming temptation to leave my first sentence right at that. I mean, what more is there to say? This is a fantastic work of fiction with enough excitement, romance, magic, adventure, and feats of strength to wow even the most reluctant of readers. You like animal stories? How about books with monsters in them? Do you like books with Native American culture woven in? How about a story of one boy trying to find his place in the world? Doggone it, this book has EVERYTHING you could possibly want in a piece of fiction. I feel like the grandfather at the beginning of “A Princess Bride” trying to convince his grandson that he holds in his hands a truly great story. Joseph Bruchac has put together a book that has a little bit of something for everyone. The result is one of the strongest titles of the year.
He was born a rather small and runty owl. As a chick, Wabi wasn’t particularly strong, but he was clever and curious, and those traits held him in good stead. After being unceremoniously kicked out his nest by his older bully of a brother, Wabi meets up with his great-grandmother who immediately teaches him everything he needs to know. Together the two take care of a small village of people that live not far from the owls’ home. All kinds of nasty monsters and aberrations of nature threaten the peaceful villagers and Wabi protects them as best he can. Slowly, however, he falls in love with a girl in the village. Her name is Dojihla and she’s a strong, headstrong, single-minded type. So it is that great-grandmother lets Wabi in on a secret. If he wants to, he can change into a human being and attempt to win Dojihla’s hand in marriage. Things do not go entirely as Wabi might have expected, however, and now he must fight numerous monsters, locate a missing wolf pack, and rescue the villagers once more if he is ever to reach the end of his own personal journey.
First off, it’s nice to have a narrator you really like right from the beginning of the book. Wabi has a sense of humor and sense of self that just feel true. He seems like a real person (slash owl) from start to finish and you’re rooting for him the entire way. The sense of humor I mentioned is important too. There are plenty of adventure novels out there that take their quests so seriously you’d think the whole affair would fall apart if anything halfway amusing happened in it. Bruchac, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to have Wabi refer to his brother as an ornicidal maniac one moment and then dryly describe the fact that while it wasn’t necessary to deliver three additional bone-crushing bones to a particularly nasty dead beastie, “... it made us feel better.”
I don’t know if you’d characterize this as a book that always keeps you guessing, but it certainly keeps you reading from start to finish. Basically this is a Native American superhero tale. Wabi begins life small, rises to great heights (literally... HA HA), finds the woman he loves, protects her people with his amazing abilities, has his secret identity revealed (did I mention his feathered ears before?), and triumphs in the end. The book even reminded me of some of the more classic tales in literature. At one point Wabi is in human form with his grandfather’s bow and he challenges a fellow to string it. The guy, of course cannot, and then Wabi does so with ease. Doesn’t that sound just a touch like a story of Odysseus? Small moments that knowingly or unknowingly refer to other myths in history and literature give the book a nice zing of recognition once in a while.
Here’s what it all comes down to, though. I can praise the writing and the storytelling and the fun of the book, but as I see it this is one of the very few books that kids of all ages, genders, etc. will enjoy equally. How many children’s books, really good really well-written children’s books, can you say that for in 2006? It has some mild similarities to "Owl In Love", by Patrice Kindl of course, but this is an entirely different critter. I’m a Wabi fan through and through, and I don’t think I’m the only one. A sleeper hit of the year, if I don’t miss my guess.
Notes On the Cover: Great. Just great. Tony Sahara I tip my hat to you. Now earlier in the year I had a bit of a problem with another blue-toned Tony Sahara cover, Black Duck, which I felt was not kid-friendly in the least. Then I offered 70-some potential Newbery books to a homeschooler bookgroup I run and “Black Duck” was the very first title picked up by one of the kids. Which means that Mr. Sahara probably knows something about cover design that I don’t. He also did the cover for Samurai Shortstop and the logo for the Alex Rider series. The guy gets around. Mr. Sahara prefers to create covers that meld photos together in a surreal landscape. “Wabi” is, to my mind, some of his best work. We see just enough of the boy to get a feel for what he looks like, and the eyes line up in such a way that his face melds in perfectly with the owl. Love the overall effect of the blue tones, by the way. A great and interesting cover that I suspect will age well over the years. Top drawer!