April 19, 2012
(+++) PRETEEN PROBLEMS
Moon Pie. By Simon Mason. David Fickling Books. $16.99.
The New Kid. By Mavis Jukes. Knopf. $14.99.
Brendan Buckley’s Sixth-Grade Experiment. By Sundee T. Frazier. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Readers ages 8-12 get plenty of frothy novels offered to them, but increasingly, they also get some that try to deal with genuine family problems in an age-appropriate but nevertheless intense way. Simon Mason’s Moon Pie, for example, focuses on 11-year-old Martha and her five-year-old brother, Tug, living – just the two of them, their mom having died – with their alcoholic father. Martha has to assume responsibilities far beyond those that are reasonable at her age, such as taking her dad to the doctor after he falls off the roof, and reading Tug’s favorite bedtime story to him when their father doesn’t come home one night. Martha also has to bake Tug’s favorite pie to keep him happy, and keep the house neat to keep everyone happy, and take care of her father to keep him happy – and who keeps Martha happy? No one, of course, and her “must do” list gets longer and longer as she tries to figure out what is wrong and to hold the family together – or, really, re-make it. This is obviously too big a burden for an 11-year-old girl to bear, and it soon becomes overwhelming. With her friend Marcus, Martha goes to see Dr. Woodley, and tries to get help; he tells her not to do anything, promises not to call the authorities, and sends Martha home, where she decides about her dad, “If she couldn’t help him to stop drinking, at least she could help him be more like his old self.” But how much can an 11-year-old do? “The problem with Dad was that he didn’t realize how bad things had become,” Martha thinks. And the authorities do get involved, and Martha and Tug (whose real name is Christopher) end up staying with their grandparents while their father goes through rehab. There is also a plot involving Martha’s decision to audition for a part in a movie, and Mason pulls the book’s elements together neatly (a touch too neatly, in fact) so as to make everything come out just right. The book is morose rather than deeply depressive, but the unending succession of problems faced by Martha and Tug may be a lot for young readers to take – not because it isn’t realistic but because it is.
There are problems for Carson Blum, the central character in The New Kid, as well, but they are less wrenching and should be easier for typical preteens (if there are any such) to relate to. Carson is “new” to a town in northern California, where he and his dad have moved with their dog, Genevieve. Carson is nine – well, almost – and is looking forward to his birthday, but is worried about adjusting to his new school (which is large) and making friends. Actually, he does have one friend, a stuffed moose named Moose , but some human friends would be nice as well. Even an animal friend – specifically, the class rat, Mr. Nibblenose – would be good. Mavis Jukes here takes a set of circumstances that could be troubling and uses them for mild pathos and a fair amount of humor: Mr. Rat turns out to be a Mrs., for example, and has 15 babies. But not everything is enjoyable: Moose goes missing, and there are a couple of not-so-nice kids in Carson’s new school, and there is some actual school work to be done. But everything works out just fine, helped along by chapter titles such as “Good-Bye, Hair Frog” and “Hello, Stuffed Animal Day” (every chapter is a hello or good-bye of some sort). There is a minor mystery to be solved, and an unexpected friend to be made along with the expected ones, and all in all, The New Kid turns out pretty darned well for just about everyone.
Things are eventually all right in Brendan Buckley’s Sixth-Grade Experiment, too, but they don’t seem that way at the beginning or through many of the novel’s episodes. Sundee T. Frazier’s first book, Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It, introduced the character, and this sequel takes him to middle school and a whole series of questions and uncertainties. Some involve family, such as the way Grandpa Ed and Grandma Gladys get along. Some involve personal challenges, such as trying to keep his new pet anole, Einstein, alive. And some involve school, such as being paired in an alternative-energy project with a formerly home-schooled girl named Morgan Belcher who never seems to stop talking and actually seems, maybe, to like him. None of these challenges is a truly major one, but Brendan is also worried about some larger issues, such as his police-detective father’s attitude toward him and his own feelings about his best friend and Tae Kwon Do sparring partner, Khalfani. Brendan tries to figure personal things out while spending a great deal of time on the energy experiment, which involves producing methane from cow manure and an apparatus using bottles and balloons. A certain amount of the book is intended to deal with serious racial matters – Brendan is biracial – but most of the issues that Brendan runs into here are the sorts that pretty much any sixth-grader could reasonably be expected to encounter. The eventual climax pulls together Brendan’s Tae Kwon Do skills, his science ability, his protectiveness when he sees a classmate being bullied, and his uncertainty about how tough his father want him to be: “What did it mean to be tough? And did I or did I not need to be it? …I liked thinking about stuff, and learning about things…” Brendan finds out, not unexpectedly, that it is all right to be smart and to be himself, and the book ends on an uplifting note that will surprise no one but that young readers will find most welcome.