February 12, 2009


Ugly Guide to Being Alive and Staying That Way. By David Horvath & Sun-Min Kim. Random House. $5.99.

Return to Sender. By Julia Alvarez. Knopf. $16.99.

     The meaning of life is all in one’s perspective – and, to a certain extent, in a child’s age. The popular Uglydolls – 24 of them so far – are for ages six and up, and so is Ugly Guide to Being Alive and Staying That Way, in which Uglydoll characters take kids through everything from birth to old age to “see you next time” in the Uglyverse. Like Frank and Ernest in Bob Thaves’ comic strip, the Uglydolls assume multiple roles and personalities as the story goes on, while their husband-and-wife creators come up with all sorts of amusingly offbeat details to illustrate one aspect of life or another. In the “Grade School” section, for example, there are two pages on “Bullies and Other Reasons to Run,” including six examples of bullies, from “bully with all the excuses” and “tough-clothing guy” to “honest bully” (“I chase you because I’m very afraid deep down”). Elsewhere in the book, there are “Ugly Strollers,” such as the “Coin-op Wedgehead Pricey Wicey” and “Eaty Feed Speeder” (featuring seven appendages equipped with everything from baby bottles to hamburgers); and “Kids Games,” such as “hide-and-seek and snack” and “one-player truth or dare” (“I dare me”). Much of the pleasure here is in the silly ideas and writing, but an equal amount is in the drawings. All 24 Uglies are displayed on two pages near the front of the book, and it can be a lot of fun to see which ones are chosen for which roles in various scenes. Besides, the drawings themselves are cutely ugly: Peaco has three eyes in a row and a tongue sticking out; Uglyworm has one eye, two teeth and the apparent ability to stand on his tail; Wedgehead has a wedge-shaped head and a single eye; Ox has two eyes, one in a round shape and the other just an X (so they spell his name); and so on. Some kids may find the Uglyverse a little more confusing than intended (although the book does say it is “disorienting and dizzying”). And the real-world connections of the book can be a tad depressing if kids think about them too much: life after college consists largely of a boring career of some sort and the chance to shop at Price Hike. By and large, though, the odd characters and skewed visuals keep the book light and enjoyable.

     There’s nothing light about Return to Sender, which Julia Alvarez aims at much older kids – ages 10 and up – and uses to address the significant real-world issue of immigration. This is the story of 11-year-old Tyler, his family, and the illegal Mexican immigrant family that keeps Tyler’s family farm going after Tyler’s grandfather dies and his father is seriously injured in a tractor accident. The book works by juxtaposing Tyler’s real-world worries with the equally real ones of Mari, a daughter of one of the workers. Mari is as frightened of her family being sent back to Mexico as Tyler is of either losing the farm or keeping it by continuing to break the law. Poverty is the overarching fear that connects Tyler and Mari: he is afraid of his family falling into it, while she is afraid of being sent back to it if her family is discovered and deported. The chapters are numbered in both English and Spanish, but the narrative is all in English, although Mari’s contributions – largely in the form of letters to relatives, to the Virgin of Guadalupe and even to the President of the United States – are sprinkled with Spanish, and Alvarez occasionally has Mari mention that she is writing in that language. Even early in the book, it is clear that there is, or will be, a bond between the farm family and the Mexican workers: “Mom’s theory is that the three Mexican girls have filled her mother-in-law’s life with company and someone to care for.” But there is no straight line to happiness for Tyler, Mari or their relatives. Real issues involving immigration are raised in Return to Sender, although in a somewhat one-sided way: “We got laws in this nation and anyone hiring illegals ought to be put behind bars,” says one character – who is shown not only to be ignorant in his speech but also to be an overall curmudgeon “who wanted to veto Grandma’s church group’s selling refreshments.” And there are moral issues here beyond immigration, as when Tyler finds more than $800 in a bathroom and has to try to decide what to do with the money, which has no identification with it and could solve all sorts of problems. There is no simple, happy ending to the story, which Alvarez clearly intends to have as much meaning as possible (even the overtly anti-immigrant character turns out to have unexpected depth). Return to Sender raises serious issues and often raises them well, but it does have a tone of unending earnestness, and Alvarez simplifies, for the sake of emotion, some very thorny political and economic issues. This is nevertheless a book that should make its young readers think about a significant societal problem – not only for United States society but also for that of Mexico.

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