October 13, 2016
(+++) THE MAINE THING
Jubilee. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
Moo. By Sharon Creech. Harper. $16.99.
Some authors of books for preteens specialize in novels designed to evoke tears, an overall feeling of warmth, and a kind of gentle catharsis that comes from the protagonists learning something about themselves through events that readers may never experience but to which they can relate. For Patricia Reilly Giff and Sharon Creech, if the books can also include some sort of special feature, such as typography changes or illustrations integrated into the stories, so much the better. Jubilee fits this pattern perfectly. It invites readers to find it “touching” and “heartwarming” – typical adjectives for typical books of this type – through its story of a girl who stopped talking after her mother left her when the girl was small; who communicates through gestures and drawings; and who, eventually and inevitably, regains the power of speech. Despite the summary’s gloomy sound, this is really a book of pervasive happiness – in small things if not large ones (until the end, anyway). The protagonist, Judith, is cherished by the wonderful adults around her (they are all wonderful) and has as perfect a relationship with her dog, Dog, as with her Aunt Cora and the other humans here. There is a great deal of scene-setting intended to show the delights of living amid the everyday wonders of nature. The difficulties, so serious to Judith (who narrates the book), are much milder than in many books for preteens: there is no violence and little high-level angst, although there is, of course, the underlying mystery of why Judith stopped talking when her mother left – was it something Judith did then, or thinks she did? To the extent that there is any drama here, it lies in Judith’s departure from the small special classroom she has been schooled in, which is on an island off the Maine coast, and the need for her to establish some sort of communication within a mainstream fifth-grade class. Ultimately, the book is all about acceptance – Judith’s acceptance of difficult or bad choices in others’ lives (including her own and her mother’s); Judith’s acceptance of her inability to speak and the sounds and visuals she uses instead to communicate (her drawings, peppered throughout the book, include everything from cartoonish stick figures to greeting-card-like cuteness); the adults’ acceptance of Judith just as she is, which seems very easy for them; and so on. Judith’s care for Dog, who was abandoned, clearly parallels the adults’ concern for Judith herself, and indeed, everything here is designed to relate to everything else with the sort of sweetness and warmth so dear to authors of tearjerkers. The events in Giff’s book never approach the tragic, although the novel is steeped in pathos; and the natural setting, including the evocation of the Maine countryside, is as positive as the personalities of every single grown-up in Judith’s world. The kernel of the message here is spoken by Judith’s mother when Judith finally finds her: “Don’t worry about anything. We’ll work it all out.” Actually, there is never any doubt of that from the very beginning of Jubilee: it is the kind of book in which it is certain from the very first that everyone will work everything out.
Moo is a bit less even-tempered, and even includes a sort-of-tragic twist toward the end (readers of Creech’s other books will see it coming: this sort of thing is part of her style). Here the special visuals are in the form of words typeset to indicate their meaning: “vibrating” has its letters at varying positions above and below the main line of text, “drip” is set vertically as if the letters are dripping, and so on. Some readers will find that this affectation wears thin quickly; others will accept the approach as integral to the storytelling. Much of the tale is in blank verse, and there is plenty of white space on many pages – this is, like Jubilee, a very easy book to read in one sitting. Also like Jubilee, it is set in Maine, which seems for both Giff and Creech to have the attraction of a distant and wondrous land where life is tied closely to nature and the everyday pace is a slow and steady one. “Little changes, day by day,” as Moo narrator Reena puts it at one point, are the stuff of life here – for Reena; her brother, Luke; their parents, who have moved to Maine specifically to get away from city life; and Mrs. Falala, the stereotypically cranky elderly neighbor whose stubborn cow Reena and Luke help prepare for a show. The story is basically as sweet as it is clichéd, leading to an eventual climax explicitly designed to tug at readers’ hearts. Of course the city kids must learn about country and farm life, and of course they must adapt to the way animals are handled Down East, and of course there is a touch of quirkiness in the characters (especially cantankerous-but-with-a-heart-of-gold Mrs. Falala, in case that was not clear from her name), and of course by the end the young people are sadder and wiser and more in touch with their caring side. Designed from the start to be touching, Moo is just that for readers who can ignore its many formulaic elements and the occasional plot points that go awry or never go anywhere (such as the virtual absence of attention to the farm animals other than the cow). The book is low-key throughout, the setting is as important here as it is in Jubilee, and Moo will be an easy and pleasant read for kids who are interested in yet another story of yet another family trying to adjust to yet another new set of circumstances and to learn in yet another way about their own innermost cares and concerns.