December 27, 2012


Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. By Helen Phillips. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

True Colors. By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Knopf. $15.99.

Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up. By Mark Peter Hughes. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      Even standardized adventures can be enjoyable for preteens, if the characters having them are created with enough personality and the settings are sufficiently exotic. Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, the first novel by Helen Phillips, is at bottom a very familiar story of plucky young girls setting out on a quest to reunite their family. What makes it interesting is not so much that bare-bones description of the plot as the characters of 12-year-old Madeline (Mad) Wade and her younger sister, Ruby (Roo), and the place where they go to try to track down their errant father: the jungles of Central America. The basic plot setup is a familiar one: father is an adventurer (in this case an ecologically aware one, a birdwatcher concerned with vanishing species, specifically the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon); he has typical-for-books-like-this quirks, such as the way he signs his letters to his daughters; then the daughters get an odder-than-usual missive (the Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter) that may indicate their dad is in trouble, so they head into the jungle to find him. And there are the usual subsidiary characters, notably one oddly called Ken/Neth who turns out to be a bad guy “even though [he] never meant to be.”  There are some forays into ecological issues: “Dad said the idea that an extinct bird might not be extinct helps him get out of bed in the morning.”  And there are a witch and an actress and a mother who is “yogafied” and not much of a thinker compared to her daughters (typical in books such as this; Mad calls her mom “Lady Yoga Brain”).  The green of the setting and of eco-awareness is scarcely the only color here: “Once my eyes adjust to the jungle, there’s a sort of grayness to the blackness,” says Mad, who narrates the book.  And there are “poisonous-looking flashes of bright red and yellow as bugs and frogs, and probably snakes too, move amid the trees.”  The setting is often more lively than the rather one-dimensional characters – although Mad and Roo do make a nicely contrasted pair. The happy ending, for humans and birds, is scarcely a surprise, but there is enough interesting adventure (with a touch of magical realism) to make the book attractive.

      The realism is scarcely magical in True Colors, where the focus is on blue – or rather Blue, a baby left on Hannah Spooner’s doorstep on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  The baby is named by Hannah for her blue skin and blue eyes – and Hannah, old enough to be the girl’s grandmother, takes it upon herself to raise Blue as a daughter on the family farm in Vermont.  So Natalie Kinsey-Warnock’s book is also a family story, but a very different one from Phillips’, following a very different (although still largely predictable) path.  By the time she is 10, Blue is determinedly seeking information on her mother, who abandoned her without leaving a note: “Listening to all the stories about family, and ancestors, and recipes handed down got me to wishing again that I knew something about my ancestors.” Blue also finds herself juggling the usual elements of growing up on a farm in the 1950s, from chores to lake swimming to a standoffish barn cat to the small and tightly knit community where the farm is located. Kinsey-Warnock includes a number of small elements designed to set the book in time and place. For instance, Blue and her friend Natalie invent a game called Crossing the Iron Curtain. “We didn’t know what the Iron Curtain was – we’d heard it mentioned in movies – but it sounded mysterious and dangerous.”  And one character refers to the Korean conflict by saying, “We all thought World War I was going to be the war to end all wars. …Then we had World War II, and now here we are, in another war.”  It is the negative side of a small community – the keeping of secrets that many people share – that eventually upsets Blue so much that she concludes that all her supposed friends, and even Hannah, have been lying to her. “Every family has secrets,” one character comments, which leads Blue to think that secrets “have a way of coming out.”  And they do – revealing Blue’s provenance at last, while also giving her insight into what it really means to have a family, beyond the question of who your biological parents may be.

      Yellow, the color of lemonade, is brighter than blue, and Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up is a brighter-hued book than True Colors, but it is much less founded in reality. It is a sequel to Mark Peter Hughes’ Lemonade Mouth, in which five “misunderstood revolutionaries” named Wen, Olivia, Charlie, Stella and Mo start a high-school band that becomes an improbable major attraction in Rhode Island and on the Web. The sequel – do not bother reading it unless you read and liked the original – is again an assemblage of material from each band member by Naomi Fishmeier, Lemonade Mouth’s “official biographer” and senior music editor for the school newspaper, the Barking Clam. It is obvious from the names that this unlikely musical success story is intended to be amusing, and is based on a long line of similar stories dating back at least to Rob Reiner’s 1984 “mockumentary” film, This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, parts of Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up are written as film scenes, those being Charlie’s contribution to the book.  Then there are letters from Olivia, Naomi’s interviews with Wen, and so forth, just as in the previous novel – the idea being to keep the book lively in more ways than the band’s name (and the names of other bands, such as Mudslide Crush).  So the members of Lemonade Mouth go through a series of experiences, from a TV show called American Pop Sensation to the sort of family angst that leads Olivia to write, “My entire life is exploding and the only thing I understand is that I don’t understand anything.”  The band members keep taking chances, doing things in offbeat and unusual ways, managing (or mismanaging) their private lives, and having their story presented in a series of chapters united primarily by the fact that each starts with a quotation, from John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” to Theodore Roosevelt’s inspirational comment, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take up ranks with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”  The quotes are more portentous (sometimes pretentious) than the book itself, and the triumphal portions of the band’s saga mesh somewhat uneasily with the mundane ones, but those who enjoyed the first book of Lemonade Mouth’s adventures will likely find this one attractive as well – and will look forward to the next, the appearance of which, based on the ending of Lemonade Mouth Puckers Up, seems inevitable.

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