Fuse #8

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Review of the Day: The Higher Power of Lucky

This actually happened. I am not making it up. I’m a children’s librarian and today I was sitting at my desk when a man came up to me. He said his daughter was reading early chapter books and he wanted to give her some to look at that were “good literature”. Like every librarian I cringe at that horribly vague term, “good”. Ah, sweet subjectivity. But when the man started talking about “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and how much his daughter had enjoyed it, I felt a twinge of frustration. She likes “Sarah, Plain and Tall”? Well, shoot. I know JUST the book for her. Best of all, it’s contemporary and engaging and all kinds of good things. But I couldn’t put the book into his hands, and herein lies my frustration. My library had not yet purchased “The Higher Power of Lucky” and so I was only able to describe to him in lurid detail the fabulousness that is this book. Don’t get me wrong. I had some real problems with Susan Patron’s lackadaisical details and peculiar plot choices, but all in all this is a strong new title. And, just for the sake of complete and utter honesty between us, it’s written by an L.A. librarian. How cool is that?

Lucky’s life is nicely organized. Wake up. Clean up the trash around the outside of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center (the closest thing in town to a church). Give her best friend and knot-lover Lincoln a call. Give Lincoln’s little brother, Miles, a cookie after reading him, “Are You My Mother?” for the umpteen bazillionth time. Then help Brigitte, Lucky’s French guardian, around the house. Which is to say, around the three trailers welded together that have become a single home. Yes, life could be simple in Hard Pan, California (pop. 43) if it were not for the constant fear that someday Brigitte will abandon her ward. Since her father doesn’t want her and her mother is dead, Lucky relies on Brigitte for food, hugs, and all the affection she lacks elsewhere. But when it looks to Lucky as if her beloved guardian may be leaving her after all, the child concocts a plan to hold on to the person most important to her in all the world.

First off, points to Patron for creating what may well be the first early chapter book written in the English language that uses the word “scrotum” in a particularly interesting fashion. It’s a dog’s scrotum being referred to, and it wins the Best-Expanding-of-Your-Vocabulary award of the year. Calm down, people! It’s tastefully done, though admittedly it wakes the adult reader up when they read it aloud. And this, in a roundabout way, takes me to the particularly good writing with which Ms. Patron has been endowed. When I reached page nine I was acutely aware of this because of the following sentence: “Lucy noticed that Brigitte’s feet seemed to be filled with many more bones than other people’s feet; she had sharp, jutting-out ankle bones and toes that were almost like fingers”. Read it and weep you people who would like to be children’s authors someday. These descriptions are the real deal.

The problem I had with the book was that I adored Patron’s writing while finding myself repeatedly stymied by her plot choices. Okay, so let’s get all this straight. Lucky’s guardian is her father’s ex-wife. And that man, through means never explained and certainly never justified, mysteriously was able to convince the woman he once refused to have children with to move to the middle of nowhere so as to leave all her friends, family, and countrymen and take care of the daughter of his second wife. I mean, points for the truly crummy dad idea. I thought that was particularly original. In this world there are some truly horrific fathers out there. Lucky’s hasn’t really even a smidgen of good to him, so that’s interesting in and of itself. But the stumbling block is the inexplicable move Brigitte has made. Heck, the book even says, “... Brigitte did not love Lucky’s father any longer, and she didn’t even know Lucille, and she’d never even heard of Lucky before. Plus she had her own French life going along, full of plans and her old French mother”. And she came because Lucille, who she didn’t even know, died? I’m not quite buying that one. Sorry.

Then again I liked the honesty with which Patron was able to write about things like that awful enjoyable feeling kids get from being mean to one another. “Lucky had a little place in her heart where there was a meanness gland. The meanness gland got active sometimes when Miles was around”. I liked the book’s humor. Lincoln’s full name is Lincoln Clinton Carter Kennedy and his mother fully intends for him to become president someday. And when Lucky becomes shocked at one point, the feeling is compared to that of sitting down on the toilet when the seat is up. “So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower”. Good call. Plus, kudos for the Darwin mentions. A little Darwinism in a children’s book never hurt no one. Period.

Of course, the illustrations by Matt Phelan don’t hurt any. Phelan’s having a rather banner year (2006) here. Not only do his pictures accompany this little tale, but he’s also applied his pen to the picture books, “The New Girl...And Me”, by Jacqui Roberts and “Rosa Farm”, by Liz Wu. In this book, his pictures come off as delicate little complements to the wider story. They never detract from the action. Instead, they add to the tale by giving us loving little glimpses into Patron’s world. As an author she couldn’t have asked for a better artist to accompany her to publication. The result is a book with all the small touching moments akin to those found in Grace Lin’s, “The Year of the Dog”.

As I mentioned before, this is a kind of updated “Sarah, Plain and Tall”. There’s that fear of abandonment that even the most stable of children feel from time to time. The simple living. And an early chapter book that fills a definite need. I didn’t mention it before, but I think the greatest accomplishment by, “The Higher Power of Lucky”, is that it’s touching without ever traipsing into ooey-gooey territory. The emotions this story elicits are won fair and square. All in all (and in spite of my Brigitte hang-up), “The Higher Power of Lucky”, should definitely be added to any and all library collection as quickly as humanly possible. It’s a wonderful book from a woman in a wonderful profession.

On shelves November 7th.
You may also read a nice article by Ms. Patron here entitled "Editorial Advice".


At 1:54 PM , Blogger Greg Pincus said...

I heard Ms. Patron READ scrotum aloud -- and you just don't expect librarians to do that :-). I will also add that that section built in hilarity among a group, thus showing yet again the power of word choice (and of reading aloud).

At 6:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I count myself one very LUCKY author to have such a splendid first review of my book, and I would like to know where to send the flowers, chocolate, and champagne.

But what about Brigitte, the character who comes from France on a moment’s notice to take care (temporarily) of an orphaned girl she’s never met? Why would she do that? See p. 38 and/or try this reversal:

Someone offers you a chance to go to a little village in France, and you
o Are unemployed
o Have always wanted to see that region of France
o Get to fly there for free
o Love kids but have none of your own
o Assume your stay will be temporary

Brigitte is impulsive, emotional, and sometimes unrealistic (see the snake-in-the-dryer chapter, for instance), and Lucky’s father, Brigitte’s ex, knows this about her (“He knew I will take care of Lucky for a while.”) So she jumps at the opportunity/adventure, for that is how she sees it, taking only a tiny suitcase and wearing—because this is the type of character she is—an impractical silk dress and high heels for her trip to the remote desert.

I wrote the book in intimate third person, through Lucky’s point of view. So the whole book “sides with” her, and her range of perception at any time is what the writing mirrors and chronicles, as in a first person narrative.

That said, I’m thrilled beyond reason that you liked “The Higher Power of Lucky” enough to compare it with “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” one of my most beloved books.

Susan Patron


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