Fuse #8

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Review of the Day: Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies

*Yawn* Sorry, guys. Usually I get my reviews out first thing in the morning. Today, however, I slept in and I was too busy to write this review last night. Mea culpa.

One technique your average children’s book reader can use when they want to fill space in a review is to compare the book at hand to already well-known titles. I do this all the time, partly because it’s a space filler and partly because it gives you a feel for the book as a whole. Yet when it came to Jill Wolfson’s newest title for the young ‘uns, “Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies”, I found myself wanting to say something like this: The only way I can describe it is to say that it’s basically “The Great Gilly Hopkins” meets “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” with an eco-message that “Hoot” fans will enjoy... and there’s a dog that seems straight out of “Surviving the Applewhites”. There. Have I cleared anything up for you? No? Well then buckle up and hold tight, kiddies. This book was one of the most enjoyable titles you’ll find this year, and it’s all about foster kids and unemployment. No lie!

Call her Whitney. No, wait, call her Termite. You might as well. After all, she knows she's a bit on the shrimpy side, and she likes to embrace her nicknames right off the top. As of this moment in time Termite has lived in twelve foster homes and she knows the lay of the land. Now her social worker has taken Termite and her pet (a pillbug by the name of Ike Eisenhower the Sixth... no relation to the president) to Forest Glen, California. Emphasis on the forest. Once there she finds a town in trouble. Due to the discovery of a rare owl, the logging industry in Forest Glen has shut down, leaving the residents destitute and in need of cash by any means. So the town came up with an idea. Why not adopt a whole mess of foster kids and make money that way until something better comes along? Now Termite’s going to school with a bunch of kids who’ve been through what she’s been through and out of the blue she’s joined the school’s ecology club. But when the logging industry starts to come to life again, Termite finds herself defending something she loves deep in the heart of the forest. And she’ll risk everything to keep it safe.

When an author creates a wholly new character, it’s important that they flesh out that person to the extent that you truly believe in them. Termite is a spot-on example of how to do this. Every detail about her comes to vibrant manic life under Wolfson’s pen. Her constant chewing and spitting of sunflower seeds. Her tiny stature, fear of all dogs, and upfront supposedly fearless nature. I kept picturing her as a tiny version of “House”, from the television show of the same name. I couldn’t help it! She says what she thinks, is incredibly observant, and definitely ADD. Part of her charm is that you never really feel sorry for her. It’s such a relief to believe in a character that can take care of herself. Termite doesn’t care what she wears or what she looks like. When she sees the popular girls in school she notes that, “It would take me about six more lifetimes to be that glossy”. And from the moment you hear that she can climb and then finds herself in a forest of tall tall trees, you know something’s gonna go down before the end of the book.

Of course one of the things I adored about this title was Wolfson’s sense of nuance. This is not an all-environmentalists-are-good-and-loggers-are-bad book. Nor is this an all-loggers-are-bad-and-environmentalists-are-good book. This story takes all sides into account. As Termite’s teacher Mr. Cator points out, there were a lot of factors other than the environmentalists that brought the logging industry to a halt. “Improved technology, cheaper timber from foreign countries, greedy corporations”, for a start. Environmentalists are just the easiest scapegoats on hand. It’s remarkable to see what a town without industry can resemble. Wolfson gets the bitterness and hopelessness right, while also filling this book to brimming with honest humor of the laugh-out-loud variety. Or, in Termite’s words, it's a, “wacky-monkey, cackling-chicken, mad-scientist, sputtering-car-starting, snorting-through-the-nose, moth-wide-open-cawing-crow” laugh.

Wolfson would do well to teach a course someday on how to write comedic passages. Honestly, it’s not easy but she makes it appear effortless. When Termite discovers the words vomica, vomit, vomitive, vomitory, vomitorium, vomiturition, and vomitus in the dictionary, she comments that, “Page 1,355 has got to be the best page of the dictionary ever. I recommend it”. The descriptions are pretty swell too. Termite’s best female friend at school, Honeysuckle, suffers from something Termite calls, “IVPS, Imaginary Vice Principal Syndrome. She felt eyes on her all the time, reading to scold her for something”. Oh, and this is completely personal, but she puts in a “Get Smart” joke that only adults will get on page 33 that I think is just fabulous. Well done, there!

Not every detail in this book was ideal, of course. Termite has a habit of misunderstanding words, possibly purposely, that will either strike readers as amusing or a joke that pretty much played itself out the first time she said “decidingus” instead of “deciduous”. On the other hand, it does lead to her character saying things like, “The Termite’s powers of perversion must not be disrespected”. I mean, that’s pretty funny. I thought it was a little overdone, but it’s easy enough to ignore if you’re not a fan.

With the sheer number of foster kid children’s books out this year, it’s nice to find one that acknowledges both the bitterness a kid can feel when shuttled from place to place, as well as the humor found in every situation. Heck, I haven’t even told you about the banana slugs or Termite’s great foster father, or half the funny stuff in this book. For an evenhanded blend of good writing and hilarity, “Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies” is a must-read title. Good good stuff.

On shelves October 3rd.


At 2:21 PM , Blogger MotherReader said...

Foster kids AND unemployment!!?? Def. a must read.

No, really, sounds great. Can't wait to see it.

At 2:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had me with "a tiny version of 'House.'" Why didn't I think of a character like that?

At 11:40 AM , Blogger Little Willow said...

Very cool. I dug her previous novel.


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