August 30, 2007


The Purple Balloon. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Decoding of Lana Morris. By Laura & Tom McNeal. Knopf. $15.99.

      Books that genuinely try to help young people understand and deal with difficult issues are so well-meaning that they are highly worthwhile even if not entirely successful. That is certainly the case for The Purple Balloon (a portion of whose proceeds will be donated to Children’s Hospice International) and The Decoding of Lana Morris (whose authors are giving 10% of their net proceeds to The Arc of the United States, a nonprofit advocacy organization for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities).

      The Purple Balloon is a simply written, understated attempt to deal with one of the most difficult subjects of all: death, specifically the death of young children. Chris Raschka bases his book on a story – recounted at the opening by Ann Armstrong-Daily, founder and CEO of Children’s Hospice International – that children who become aware of their own impending death, and are given a chance to draw their feelings, frequently draw a blue or purple balloon floating free. Armstrong-Daily says this is true regardless of a child’s cultural or religious background; and whether or not that is so, the escaping balloon is a lovely metaphor for release from pain. Raschka uses it to produce drawings of balloons of all colors floating, talking, clustering around each other and easing the passage of someone who is dying. The narrative of the book is simplistic enough for very young children – and therefore too simple for older ones, although the book is intended for all ages. “When someone dies, it’s good to have a family. And it’s good to have friends.” Raschka’s balloon drawings are more emotionally expressive than the text: the balloons look sad, have downcast eyes, even cry. “Good help makes dying less hard,” writes Raschka. For very young children, this book may make it easier to help, even if not easier to understand the inevitable question so many children – and adults – ask: “Why?”

      The Decoding of Lana Morris is written in the form of a traditional novel for ages 12 and up, but its subject is out of the ordinary – and explains the authors’ donation decision. Lana Morris is a foster child, her father dead and her mother an alcoholic, and she lives in a home filled with what are nowadays called “special-needs children.” Lana’s foster mother is cruel to her, and her foster father is overly attentive in ways that are making Lana increasingly uncomfortable. Unable to escape and not knowing what to do, Lana one day stumbles into a mysterious antiques shop – and the tale moves from gritty reality to fantasy. At the store, Lana uses her most valuable possession, a $2 bill from her father, to buy a box containing 13 blank pieces of paper. These are no ordinary papers, as Lana finds out when she starts drawing on them: what she draws seems to come true, and what she erases seems to become untrue. With this new sense of control over herself, her life and her environment, Lana starts trying to make things better for herself and the other foster kids; but of course, things do not go smoothly. Magic paper (if it is magic) does not prevent scenes like this: “Alfred is hitting himself in the face, not too hard, but hard enough so Lana knows he’s upset, and yet Lana feels a hardness take hold of her, the same hardness she saw in her mother when Lana would pour her mother’s booze down the sink or flush her drugs down the toilet, the hardness that made her mean.” The book is ultimately about wishes, good and bad, ones that work and ones that go awry, and how the physically and mentally disabled have their good and bad wishes, their good and bad days, just like everyone else. The ending is neatly knitted together – perhaps a little too neatly – but it is clear throughout that Lana will eventually be just fine, despite all the challenges she faces. That is an overly optimistic view of what happens to foster children; and the developmental disabilities of some of the other characters are downplayed unrealistically – although they are accurately portrayed in other ways. Laura and Tom McNeal’s hearts are certainly in the right place, even if their book takes several very difficult subjects and makes them seem easier to manage than they are in the real world.

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