May 12, 2016


The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin. By Elinor Teele. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

Lily and Dunkin. By Donna Gephart. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Quirky protagonists are generally welcome in books for preteens, and for some authors, the more quirky characters in a book, the better. This was one reason the Lemony Snicket books were quite popular for some time, and it is those books that come to mind when reading Elinor Teele’s The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin. The not-nice quirky adults determined to reel in and mistreat the nice quirky kids are everywhere in this novel, which is supposed to feel like a romp but seems a bit too forced for that. The action starts in grimy, depressing Pludgett, the town where 11-year-old John Coggin and his six-year-old sister, Page, live with Great-Aunt Beauregard after the death of their parents. The family business is coffin making: John builds caskets already, and the story gets moving when Great-Aunt Beauregard announces that John will become a partner in the business and Page will leave school to start working there as well. The two kids therefore decide to run away – John is actually good at coffin making, but he is really an inventor of wonderful machines (or so he thinks), and is stifled in the family firm. The two kids first meet Boz, a strange stranger associated with a wandering circus, who drives them away in a horse-drawn fire engine. John and Page rather like the circus, but John’s attempt to invent a steam-driven vehicle called the Autopsy comes to nothing; soon he and Page move on, this time encountering a woman named Maria, who owns a bakery. Things seem all right at first, but money is tight, and when John tries to help by creating a new oven for Maria, he succeeds only in blowing up the bakery. Again, John and Page move on, next encountering an archeologist and self-defense expert named Miss Doyle – from whom they are kidnapped by the nefarious Great-Aunt Beauregard. The question is whether John’s dubious inventing talents, and the help of the various helpful adults he and Page have met on their travels, will allow him to create something that will make it possible for him and Page to get away from Great-Aunt Beauregard and the other not-nice grown-ups. The whole story is filled with rather obscure vocabulary – another way in which it resembles the Series of Unfortunate Events books – and readers’ enjoyment will hinge in part on whether they do or do not like comments like that of Boz: “Merely a miscalculation on my weight-to-height ratio. I shall indulge in pâté de fois gras for a few days, and all will be right with the world.” There is also the question of how much readers enjoy boogers (which drop into people’s soup) and poop (which John uses to power his inventions). Teele seems to be trying too hard, if not to emulate Snicket, then to show protagonists who are plucky as well as quirky, resourceful as well as put-upon. The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin has an underlying repetitious quality: protagonists on their own, protagonists interacting with new people, all going well, all getting messed up, protagonists on their own again. Since neither John nor Page is much developed as a character, it is the action here rather than the personalities to which readers will be attracted – or not.

     In contrast, Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin is strictly personality-driven, at least on the surface. But this is an IMPORTANT book, a book with THINGS TO SAY, a book to ENLIGHTEN readers, a book to be taken VERY SERIOUSLY INDEED, and thus the personalities are very carefully crafted to communicate the message, just as the “personality” of protagonist Christian was created by John Bunyan for the sole purpose of furthering the message of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Religious allegory is uncommon nowadays, doubly so in works for young people, but a secular version of it is very much present in books such as Lily and Dunkin. Once upon a time, many people urged sincerely and at length that individuals should be judged not on how they looked but on what they did – in other words, that willful blindness to a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation was the foundation of tolerance. Today the societal pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that it is considered offensive not to look first at a person’s skin, belief system or sexuality and then interact with the person on that basis. The current notion is that people can be treated fairly only when their observed externalities are seen and 100% accepted by everybody, specifically and particularly including those with different observed externalities. Color blindness is very much out; color awareness, followed by deference, is very much in. And so it is also with sexuality, which is the topic addressed in Lily and Dunkin. The book is about transgender eighth-grader Lily Jo McGrother, a girl born in a boy’s body (as Timothy). Lily cannot, of course, be a fully formed human being with worries, doubts and uncertainties – in the current societal climate, Lily must know without the slightest doubt that s/he is transgender, and must be uncertain only about how to present that certainty to the world at large. Or, for that matter, to individuals within that world, such as Norbert (Dunkin) Dorfman, who first sees Lily in a dress – clothing for which Lily makes excuses until she is ready to tell Dunkin the not-awful-at-all truth. For his part, just to create a balancing act between the title characters, Dunkin is bipolar – as if Gephart is saying, “See? Everyone has something to deal with and to figure out how and when to reveal, and to whom.” Lily and Dunkin is so determinedly well-meaning, so sure that it is on the side of right and goodness and virtue and the contemporary belief in seeing the outside of a person first and foremost and delving only later, if at all, into the person’s inner thoughts and feelings, that it becomes every bit as much a sermon as The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here there are two pilgrims, Lily and Dunkin, both progressing along the road from misunderstanding to that of tolerance and acceptance. Every right-thinking 21st-century young reader, secular or religious, is expected to follow this story from start to finish in order to arrive at the promised land of perfect understanding and appreciation of differences – and anyone who points out the extremely formulaic story and the straw-man approach that Gephart uses again and again to make points is just being churlish. Lily and Dunkin is fine for preteens who are happy being told what to think and how to think. There is much less in it for those who want to think for themselves, who are trying to tackle and come to terms with gender identity, mental illness and other extremely important topics on their own and in a thoughtful way.

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