February 15, 2018
(++++) BENDING THE CONVENTIONS
Out of the Wild Night. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. By Sally J. Pla. Illustrations by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $16.99.
Books for preteens and young teenagers typically contain a multitude of formulaic elements: they are coming-of-age stories involving friendship, an adventure/quest, lack of adult understanding, family difficulties, often a mystery as the core or at least part of the plot, and more. And they are almost always multi-protagonist stories, with one central character but one or more almost-as-important ones. Publishers seem to think these tropes are de rigueur in books for this age group, but the best authors know the expected material is not enough for a meaningful story. And it is in their willingness to incorporate the expected items while simultaneously pushing beyond them that the finest authors of works for this age group excel. Indeed, in some cases authors push the boundaries of the preteen/early teen format so far that their books are somewhat iffy for many readers, requiring a higher level of involvement and sensitivity to language and characterization than many younger readers possess. That is precisely the case with Blue Balliett’s latest outstanding work, Out of the Wild Night. Although the cover calls this “a ghost story,” it is far more than that: much of it is a book of poetry masquerading as prose. “November is our thinking month – a time of crisp, bright moons and of liquid mockingbirds in the tallest trees.” “Clouds and ocean and land are rolling, like crumbs on God’s knee.” “When you’re really in the present, I believe you’re most in the past, because it never actually went away. It’s what makes us all people and not horseshoe crabs or stones.” The language is lovely – and the “I” of that last excerpt is dead. Yes, the narrator of Out of the Wild Night is a ghost, so the book is absolutely, 100% a ghost story, a ghost’s story – and its title comes directly from a work by British poet A.S. Byatt about inviting ghosts in. That is what Balliett’s book is about: ghosts being invited into the lives of living children, ages six to 11, in a place where the line between life and death is unusually thin and the dead and living commingle to each other’s benefit and in each other’s support, even if adults are too, well, adult to realize it. The place is Nantucket, the narrator is 100-years-dead Mary W. Chase, and the plot is one of preservation vs. modernization, of the collision between the old and the new and the value of deliberately not subsuming the former into the latter: “As long as the settled landscape of an old house remains, we spirits, those of us whose lives were anchored in its walls and floors, who were born, gave birth, and died inside them, can stay. As can our dreams. BUT. Rip out all of the rooms and you rip the beach from beneath the shells. You tear the poetry from the shore. You destroy what should rightfully linger. You butcher what we protect.” What lovely language – thoughts of the dreams of those who have passed on. Adults who read this book – and adults will enjoy it – may think of Hamlet: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” But these dreams are not nightmares, these ghosts not threats: the threats here are from the living, from modernity, from a world that has long moved past the time of the old Nantucket houses and now seeks to preserve only their exteriors, making them literally shells of their former selves. And Mary and the other ghosts can do nothing about this unless they can find a way to interact with the only people receptive to them: children. There is quite a group of kids here, known collectively as the Old North Gang: Gabe Pinkham; Paul, Cyrus, and Maddie Coffin; Phoebe Folger Antoine; and twins Maria and Markos Ramos. Their backgrounds and ethnicities vary, but they are united in their love of and sensitivity to old Nantucket and their willingness to fight for it – by being involved in, if not directly causing, a series of “accidents” that will stop the cold-hearted and uncaring developers (whose one-dimensional sliminess, until an eventual abrupt turnaround, is the only significant flaw here: making the bad guys caricatures makes the tale somewhat too one-sided to be a fully effective moral/ethical lesson). Balliett paces Out of the Wild Night with relentless skill and beautifully rendered language: “Happy is too easy a word, but I think that sadness in a house can change into something else if you allow it to, like rubbing oil into wood to make it shine. It isn’t just oil anymore. It becomes part of the beauty of the wood. Beautiful things don’t always smile.” Nor does beautiful language always make reading easy. But the words not only tell the story but also become part of the story here. Balliett’s love of Nantucket permeates every page and shows at the back of the book in photos of the real-world island. This is a book that asks young readers to rise above themselves and delve into a writing style to which they are unlikely to be accustomed, and issues with which even adults have difficulty coming to terms. It is a wonderful novel for the thoughtful, a thoughtful novel filled with wonders.
Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine is less skillfully written and more conventionally plotted, but it too stretches the conventions of novels for preteens in ways that set it above the vast majority of books targeting this age group. Protagonist Stanley Fortinbras is a 12-year-old comic-book-trivia fanatic with a 14-year-old brother and a post-divorce family: the boys live with their mom; their grandfather has moved in as well; and the boys’ dad is somewhere in Africa, trying to better the lives of people there while paying very little attention to the lives of his own children. Stanley also has physical and emotional challenges, being prone to panic attacks that even lead to him fainting in front of his whole school. Stanley’s best friend, Joon, has started behaving like a jerk and hanging out with guys who don’t think much of Stanley, so Stanley is receptive when he meets a new neighbor, a girl named Liberty – who has her own fractured family and her own dark health secret (which readers will likely guess well before Stanley finds out what it is). Then Stanley has the opportunity to enter a comic-book-trivia contest whose winners will get VIP passes to the upcoming Comic Fest; and he ends up paired with Liberty after Joon decides to enter the contest with someone else. There is nothing especially original about any of these plot elements, but the way Pla handles them is out of the ordinary. For example, Stanley responds to school disaster drills, of which there are many, by sitting alone in a safe room (given to him because of his emotional condition) and drawing the adventures of a comic-book superhero he invents and names John Lockdown – a hero who ends up figuring in the book’s plot in wholly unexpected ways. (Steve Wolfhard’s illustrations, which show the drawings that “Stanley” makes of John Lockdown and other things, help buoy the story.) For another thing, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes some real-life connections, not only through the disaster practices at school – unfortunately all too real nowadays – but also through some social consciousness about comic books. At one point, Liberty says, “I don’t get why they call the male superheroes men, like Superman, Batman, Aquaman. But the female superheroes are all called girls. Batgirl, Supergirl, Aquagirl.” And Stanley, who narrates the book, writes, “I think about the busty, crazy-shaped women they have in a lot of those old issues. ‘A lot of stuff in the history of comics hasn’t been fair to girls.’ ‘A lot of stuff in history hasn’t been fair to girls,’ Liberty says…” Thankfully, Pla does not belabor this point; but thankfully, she does raise it – and in a context that makes sense. Indeed, a great deal of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes sense, even when that means it does not get neatly tied up with a happy ending – which it does not. The enforced separation of Stanley and Liberty, not long after they have become firm friends, is uncomfortable but realistic in context; the re-emergence of Joon as a friend is a bit more forced but understandable; the twist involving John Lockdown pulls the latter part of the book in unexpected directions that, again, make sense because of the way Pla handles the plot; and Stanley’s out-and-out-heroism when an accident occurs that ties back to disputes between his mother and his grandfather also fits Stanley’s well-developed personality. Stanley and Liberty are, in fact, so well portrayed that Pla almost gets away with turning Stanley’s family members – his mom, dad, grandfather and brother – into cardboard characters. Ultimately, readers will realize that the book’s title is quite apt: with all that has happened to him by the novel’s end, Stanley will indeed probably be fine – but that “probably” hangs over the book’s finale, as it does over everyone’s life, because despite the optimism in evidence here, Stanley’s ongoing happiness is something less than a foregone conclusion.