Review of the Day: Where I Live
Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Matt Phelan. Dial Books for Young Readers. $16.99
Once a children’s book author wins the Newbery Medal, their title receives a certain amount of attention, praise, and (in some instances) controversy. We know that this means that future books under that author’s name, while not guaranteed to be bestsellers, will still be purchased by a certain segment of the population based on name-recognition alone. How fare the illustrators of Newbery winning books then? In the last 20 years there have only been four medal winners with illustrations (not counting the photographs found in “Lincoln: A Photobiography”). Some, like Peter Sis, have gone on to fame and fortune. Others, like Eric Beddows, have mostly stayed under the radar. So when I saw that Eileen Spinelli’s newest verse novel, "Where I Live", was being illustrated by “The Higher Power of Lucky”’s own Matt Phelan, I didn’t know how it would potentially affect book sales. The story in and of itself is a simple one that tries for a pure, straightforward emotional response from its readers. With this in mind, Phelan’s illustrations can only cast Spinelli’s work in the best possible light. If not a match made in heaven, at the very least what we can define here is a match made under the auspices of particularly beneficent stars.
Right from the start, you know that Diana is living a pretty nice life. She loves her house, with the family of birds living in the wreath hanging from her front door. She loves her best friend Rose and her floppy purple hat. She loves how well she does in school in terms of poetry and she enjoys learning about the stars. Imagine how devastated she feels, then, when it suddenly becomes clear that the family needs to up and move in with Diana’s Grandpa Joe in his house that is six whole hours away. Author Eileen Spinelli delicately tell the story of one girl’s hurt and confusion. She loves her Grandpa, but how can that make up for moving away from her best friend in the entire world? In the end, Diana finds that it isn’t about making your new life exactly like your old but creating a space for yourself in your new surroundings that leads to happiness.
I hadn’t read any Eileen Spinelli books prior to seeing this one (which, considering how prolific she is, strikes me as a bit odd). Then I found that some of the choices she made as an author caught my attention and caused me take a closer notice of this title. I found it interesting how long it took Spinelli to get to Diana’s actual move. The book stands at a slim 112 pages (give or take a few) so it’s funny that it’s not until 45 or so that our heroine gets the big news. It works in the end, but I wouldn't call it a natural choice. The writing itself is very simple. Spinelli does little things with her words that might go unnoticed, but add to the overall reading experience when you examine them. At one point near the end we read, “When Mom and I go back ‘home’ Twink is waiting at the door.” “Home” in parentheses is a clever little touch. “Where I Live” is a good title to hand to children who like to read but aren’t quite up to regular chapter books yet. And they’ll still be able to get lines like, “Ha. / Ha. I’m / never / laughing / again,” when Diana refuses to smile at her Dad’s jokes the night of her move.
Illustrator Matt Phelan has certainly created some lovely picture books in his day, and rumor has it that he even has a graphic novel in the works. Even so, “Where I Live”, is the first book of his that I’ve seen where he’s had to prove that his illustrations are capable of telling a story like and unlike the narration written by the author. The pictures in this book have to be able to show not only what Diana is saying but also was she is incapable of conveying. When, for example, she is drowning in self-pity after the family has moved in with Grandpa Joe, Phelan knows to show the look of mild hurt in Joe’s eyes when she refuses a game of chess. Even if those eyes are just tiny dots with whiskery lines above them for eyebrows. Phelan also mirrors the book’s purposeful repetition visually, just in case kids miss it in the words. The beginning of the book, where we see Diana waving out of her bedroom window at Rose in the morning, matches the twilight scene at the end where Diana is waving out her bedroom window at her new friend, Sam. I know that at this point in time it’s hard to separate Phelan from his work on “The Higher Power of Lucky”, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that the characters of Diana and Lucky have quite a lot in common. Both girls notice the distinctive elements of their homes and love them. Though the reading levels for the two titles don’t encourage a pairing, it’s clear to me that Mr. Phelan is drawn to a particular type of writing (or, at the very least, type of heroine).
A sick part of me is amused by the fact that the title of this book is not too dissimilar from Meg Rosoff’s VERY young adult novel, “How I Live Now.” For your own sake (and the sake of those who benefit from your gift-giving impulses) do not get the two mixed up in your brain. The book also reads in a manner similar to “Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart,” by Vera B. Williams. It hasn’t the same emotional punch to the gut, but rather emulates the sweeter moments in Williams’ tale. You might consider pairing "Where I Live" with other “moving” titles if you know of a child who’s taking the change especially hard. It would work beautifully alongside Ralph Fletcher’s small verse picture book, “Moving Day”. The hero of that particular book is a boy, but it shouldn’t make much of a difference in the long run. Altogether this is a nice little story that will best fit the needs of children experiencing the situation faced by the main character. I’ll be interested to see if it garners a larger audience as time goes by.
Notes On the Cover: We can do better. I'm sure that the market for verse novels that look like Cliff Notes can't be as high as everyone's saying. You know that I adore Matt Phelan's illustrations, and the image of Diana on the cover is charming. However, let's take practical manners into hand here. This cover feel stuck and static. It needs to breathe a little. Let's consider livening it up in some way. Even the inclusion of the floppy purple hat would have been a welcome addition. Ah well.