Review of the Day: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree
Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis. Dial Books (a division of Penguin Young Readers Group). $16.99.
First and foremost I want to stop right now the temptation anyone may have to compare this book to "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time". It ends here. “Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree,” is a treat. A delight. An engaging romp, if you will, but it is NOT to be compared to Mark Haddon’s book, no matter how tempting a prospect. Let us consider this book entirely on its own merits and leave speculations regarding the main character’s mental state to the readers themselves. Newbie first-time author Lauren Tarshis has written a book with some serious buzz flitting about it. Memorable and supremely interesting, this is a book worth holding on to for a very long time.
She’s not like other girls, that Emma-Jean Lazarus. She doesn’t burst into tears every day in middle school or giggle about boys with her friends. Come to think of it, she doesn’t seem to have all that many friends to begin with. That’s okay, though. If Emma-Jean is anything, she’s comfortable being herself. That’s something Colleen Pomerantz would probably pay anything to be. When Emma-Jean finds Colleen sobbing in the girls’ bathroom (which is just as illogical as it is out of character) she vows to help Colleen out any way she can. Of course, that may mean some forgery here and there, but Emma-Jean is confident in her abilities. Now, however, she has mixed feelings towards her widowed mother falling for the nice Indian guy boarding with them, while at the same time learning that this whole “friendship” idea may not be as straightforward as all that. People don’t always make sense and the world is not always fair, but sometimes change can be good. Even if it's not entirely comfortable.
I’ll level with you here. I read this book roundabout a month ago. The thoughts that have percolated and popped in my noggin are not first-impressions or sudden flashes of inspiration. So as I picked this book up to review it, something strange occurred to me; I could remember everything in it perfectly. I could remember the plot, and the characters, and teensy tiny little details here and there. When you review a lot of children’s books, they all tend to run together after a while into a big old slurry blur. Not this book.
Part of Tarshis’ strength lies in her characters, of course. Emma-Jean isn’t emotional, but at the same time she isn’t so cold that the reader doesn't care for her. You warm to her instantly, even as she puzzles through the peculiarities of middle school interactions. I like that from page one you get a sense of Emma-Jean’s personality. “. . . crying was not a logical way to express one’s opposition to the seventh-grade science curriculum,” she thinks after two girls cry at having to dissect a sheep’s eyeball. As for Colleen, she was exactly the kind of person I could understand. “. . . Colleen was always thinking and worrying and obsessing about things.” Been there. Most of us have. It's just rare to see that feeling fleshed out so well into a living breathing person.
The writing, in and of itself, is subtle, but not so subtle that it won’t make for good discussions. For example, when Colleen decides not to get angry at Emma-Jean it reads, “She couldn’t be mad at Emma-Jean, because poor Emma-Jean didn’t understand anything about anything.” The heck she doesn’t! Emma-Jean is a uniquely skilled individual. When she wants to hook her teacher up with the man boarding with herself and her mother she knows how to drop a dinner invitation with a sly, “You could bring your boyfriend if you like,” to determine her teacher's relationship status. Descriptions pop out at the reader with a bit of intensity you wouldn’t expect off-hand. When Colleen feels terrible, the pink wall color, “made her feel like she was trapped inside an old dog’s ear.” Not just any dog, mind you. An old dog. Ick.
The assumption is going to pop up (hence the “Curious Incident” reference at the beginning of this review) somewhere suggesting that Emma-Jean has some mild form of autism. Yet the book never says that, and the book is, when you think about it, the only reference on the topic we have. I don’t think we can go about leaping to conclusions willy-nilly. Just because someone isn’t doesn’t act like everyone else, do we have to label them? When Emma-Jean explains why she doesn’t want any friends she simply says, “They are too complicated.” You don’t have to diagnose a person to agree with a statement like that.
Now I run a homeschooler bookgroup, and recently I’ve been taking the time to assess the readability of the books that come my way. For example, recently my kids and I read "Rules" by Cynthia Lord and we were just bowled over by how well that title works as a point of discussion. It engages the child readers so much so that everyone loves the book. So I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Tarshis ’ book does the same thing. It has that indefinable quality that makes the reader just want to pick up the title again and again and again. The ending is top notch (coming up with a quilt-related solution to one of Emma-Jean’s woes that gives me shivers to read), the beginning biting, and the middle engaging and endearing in turns. Recommended with a "yes, indeed" for kicks.
Notes on the Cover: As someone pointed out on this blog not too long ago, it does the book no favors. It’s not a terrible cover by any means. And you can even tie it into Emma-Jean’s pet bird, the trees she and her father loved, and the fabric that is eventually sewn onto her quilt. That said, this is not a kid-friendly cover. This is the kind of cover you put on an adult book of poetry (one that uses words like "thrush" and "entirety"). So it’s nothing against you, Dial, but when this pup comes out in paperback (and it will if it gets the attention it deserves) let us take into consideration the possibility of doing something just as classy but with a touch of child-friendliness to boot. Let us, to be blunt, make this book like like it’s worthy of its buzz.