Fuse #8

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Review of the Day: That Girl Lucy Moon

I was born contrary. Should you crow a little too loudly about how good this thing or that thing is, I immediately decide to set about sniffing out its flaws. I don’t want to come across as easily won over. Never. You see where this is leading, don’t you? For a while now I haven’t been able to so much as glance at a children’s literature blog without eventually seeing the writer go into fits of pure ecstasy over Amy Timberlake’s, “The Girl Lucy Moon”. Was I going to be so easily swayed by the pack? No sir! This “Lucy Moon” business was going to have to do a puh-reety good job if it wanted to win my heart any time soon. Thus thinking I picked it up, gave it a look-see and… uh…

Okay, fine.

I really really liked it. I’ve a soft-spot in my heart for books of kiddie activism. The excellent writing, plotting, and arc of the title just happened to be a nice plus.

Up until this moment in time, Lucy Moon has enjoyed a certain amount of infamy. Everyone in her elementary school knew who she was. She was the kid with the extra long braids and the yellow and green hemp hat that, when asked to remove the article, would launch into a well-rehearsed dialogue on the exploitation of Mexican workers, sometimes managing to work in a small “and did you know that hemp should be legal” speech on the side. She was the one who defended ants when boys fried them with magnifying glasses and led protests on a regular basis. But now everything’s different. Lucy has just started the sixth grade in Middle School and she’s not as sure of herself as she once was. To boot, her mother has taken off on a cross-country road trip in which she hopes to photograph cloud formations around the U.S. That might be okay (she does this sort of thing once a year) but this time she doesn’t look as if she’s coming back. Then two kids are arrested while sledding down Wiggins Hill. Immediately Lucy launches into action, reporting on the arrest when even the local papers refuse to and organizing a small protest against the most powerful woman in town, Miss Wiggins. What Lucy doesn’t expect is the violent backlash against her small objections. Now she must face overwhelming punishment for acting within her rights while dealing with her personal issues at home.

It may be done on a small scale, but what this book is doing, to some extent, is rather epic. On the surface it may only be about a girl who goes head to head with the establishment and sees the extent to which it works against her. Expand it a little farther and this is about basic civil liberties. To object to the closing off of Wiggins Hill by Miss Wiggins, Lucy creates little postcards for the other kids in the school to send to the hill’s owner. Sending postcards in this manner, if done politely, is not harassment nor, for that matter, illegal. Yet the entire process ends with Lucy threatened with suspension for even attempting such a thing. This is deeply unfair, but how different is it from actions taken against everyday citizens in this or any other country? “That Girl Lucy Moon” is about oppression, pure and simple, but rendered in a form that kids everywhere can understand. As a person, Lucy's defense of her beliefs makes perfect sense. She’s the ideal heroine. Why does she fight? “She did it in order to release the pressure that injustice created inside of her”. Still, there’s more to her than that.

This defense of our civil liberties is coupled against two other central story elements. Timberlake, as an author, is setting up the theme of fighting oppression while also making Lucy a realistic human being. I mean, Lucy may fight against something bigger than herself, but she’s not perfect by any stretch. When her friend Zoe makes up a remarkable imitation of the local town paper with the story of the sledders’ arrest front and center, Lucy fails to give her any credit. Later on, Lucy is almost entirely beaten down by the forces she’s trying to fight. Her response? Well, for a little while she just gives up entirely. All she wants to do is sleep all day, a classic case of depression. Though she’s only in the sixth grade, Lucy has both a personal and professional life to balance, and neither one of them are going too smoothly. After all, finding herself living with just her father is like, “being left with a relative seen only on major holidays, maybe like an uncle who is an officer in the army and is used to a little authority”. What impressed me was the degree to which Lucy’s father, not someone she’s really been close to in the past, comes through for her. There was a 30 second moment while I read this book when I thought that maybe Lucy’s dad was going to drop the ball, leaving a huge plot gap in the center of the novel. Then Timberlake filled that gap with an expert hand and I was left feeling both relieved and impressed.

Then on top of all of this, Timberlake makes the book funny. No really! Think about how hard the two must be. To be honestly amusing and deal with huge issues on such a small scale… and then to make it funny to boot. Puberty in middle school? “But hormones were just chemicals, right? So if her reaction had been caused by a brain-chemical spill, like the Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, there should be some sort of clean-up program to initiate”. Or how about referring to an unattractive coat as being akin to “puppet flesh”? We can all debate amongst ourselves whether or not that or the later descriptor of calling a thrift shop shirt, “Grover fur”, is funnier. Later, Lucy is asked to say what she is thankful for on Thanksgiving. “There was a long pause as she tried to think thankful thoughts. It was like waiting for a herd of tortoises to climb a hill”.

And then the writing itself is often prone to the occasional spark of beauty. “Sledders dreamed about that extra slide, when the air turned so blue that the whole world looked like it was underwater, and the only light came from reflection of the dusk moon on the blue-white snow”. Magnificent.

The story also puts into words the small truths that exist in this world but go unnoticed until someone is able to write them down on paper. For example, eventually the kids in Lucy’s school decide to give her their support. This might strike some as out of character, but Timberlake is able to back it up. “… the kids at the junior high began to feel the invoking of that ancient line in the sand that separates kids from adults: the us and them, the out-of-the-know and the in-the-know, the powerless and the powerful”. You could say as much for any oppressed people when a member of their community is punished as an “example”. Finally, another thing the book did that few children’s books think to is illustrate the degree to which it is important for kids to sometimes get apologies, “unembellished with excuses”.

There have been quite a few interesting books in which a kid is ostracized or, worse still, actively disliked by the majority of their school’s student body. “Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies”, by Jill Wolfson was one such example. Few books really bring the idea home quite as well as “Lucy Moon”, though. The ups and downs of middle school popularity (to say nothing of whether or not its even worth it) are cataloged here in shockingly realistic detail. My friends, I wasn’t just won over by this book. I was bowled over by this book. It fully deserves the acclaim it’s undoubtedly going to receive. I haven’t even found a way to mention so many of the other things I liked about this book. Things like the pure Minnesotan taste of it all, or the fact that the local radio station plays things like, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” on the Theremin. So let's just end this review with the last lines in the book. “At the junior high, things continued on, except that some students began to question. Questions turned out to be a bigger thing than most of them realized”.

This year’s must-read book.

Notes On the Cover: I don’t think this will fall into the category of Universally Beloved Cover Illustration, but I like it. Not least because the artist somehow managed to find the perfect Lucy Moon hat. It’s from www.hemp-sisters.com, adding to its authenticity since Lucy brings up her hat’s hemp status in the book itself. The toboggan in the upper right hand corner is nice, but I really liked the weathered blue background. Word on the street informs me that the book in its hardcover form will also have deep burgundy endpapers. Manifique.

Be sure to check out author Amy Timberlake's website as well.


At 2:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read the book! Amy Timberlake fans should also check out her first book, "The Dirty Cowboy," a delightful story handed down through her family and beautifully illustrated by Adam Rex. We have given it as baby shower gifts or other occasions that celebrate children, and it's always a hit! There is no doubt we will continue to see wonderful work from Amy Timberlake!!!

At 3:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Amy is one of the nicest people on the planet, to boot.
Hooray, when good things happen to good people!

At 1:55 AM , Blogger Lisa Yee said...

. . . and she bakes great scones, too.

At 7:47 PM , Blogger Andy Richardson said...

Thanks to fusenumber8 for a fantastic, super insightful review. And now for those of you who still aren't convinced you might want to get a "look-see" at Lucy Moon, even after hearing the praises from a self-proclaimed skeptic, I'll give you my brief, yet honest thoughts on TGLM from a different vantage point, those from Amy's "little" brother. So maybe I shouldn't be on this blog altogether, but isn't that where little brothers usually show up?

I won't even feign an attempt to be as insightful, articulate, colorful or critically analytical as either Amy or fusenumber8, so let me just get it out: LUCY MOON IS AMAZING!!! It was an absolute thrill on many levels to read this novel. Timberlake (I love calling her by her last name) has captured the elements of what makes junior high incredibly embarassing one moment and magical the next inside a story of a REAL life hero. Darn, if I would have found a book like this when I was going through middle school/junior high, I might have 1) read more, 2) not felt so awkward through puberty and 3) had an informal guidebook on the power of taking a stand for what is right! I say that, but now that I think about it, these influences were soaked up from spending 24/7 down the hall from Timberlake between 1968-1985.

When Amy was in kindergarden, she brought me for show-and-tell, i.e. to show-and-tell me. Apparently, having beat out a small army of stuffed animals and books, she was proud (or at least amuzed) to have a little brother. In the back of my mind, no matter how bad I screwed things up as a kid, I retained this belief of her acceptance and it meant A LOT. Certainly, TGLM has made me proud of my big sister - something so important for the elder siblings to hear, right?!

At 1:57 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

That's adorable. I hope that someday when I write my own book and it's reviewed by countless bloggers (who hopefully will avoid the terms "fledgling effort" and "stick to blogging) my own little brother will say as much.

Other authors should definitely consider bringing in their siblings for such accounts. Thank you, Mr. Richardson. Your comments have added to the whole reviewing "experience".


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