October 11, 2018
Finding Esme. By Suzanne Crowley. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
So Done. By Paula Chase. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The notion of “finding oneself” is so commonplace in novels for preteens as to be endemic. In the case of Suzanne Crowley’s Finding Esme, it is through finding something else that the protagonist is supposed to learn just who she is and where she belongs. That protagonist, 12-year-old Esme McCauley, has been unhappily disaffected for three months, ever since her much-loved grandfather, Paps, died of a heart attack while riding his tractor on the family farm, at a place called Solace Hill. Esme is sure Paps has been trying to tell her something about the location ever since his death. Since she has apparently inherited from her grandmother, Bee, the ability to locate things by using a witching stick, Esme searches the area where Paps died and, lo and behold, finds a cache of dinosaur bones. The spot is easy to find, since the tractor Paps was riding has not been moved for three months; why it has taken Esme that long to do her search is never quite clear. Nor is it ever clear why she hesitates to tell anyone what she has found: the family farm is about to go into foreclosure, and it would be logical that anything Esme could find that might help would be something with which she would want to help. In any case, she cannot tell her father about the discovery, because he ran off three years ago; she cannot tell her mother, June Rain, who does nothing these days but sit on the couch; and she cannot even tell Bee, who is too busy selling honey and peaches to keep the farm going to find time to move the tractor, much less listen to Esme. All of this strains credulity, and the names that are supposed to be meaningful (Bee, June Rain, Solace) are as irritating as the cuteness that various townspeople exhibit whenever they show up in the story. It is left to Esme’s friend Finch, who discovers Esme’s find and tells a paleontologist about the bones, to get the plot moving in the direction of saving the farm and family. Crowley sets the story in 1972, for no particular reason, and the references to the time period will not likely have any meaning for the target audience of 21st-century preteens. The strongest element of Finding Esme is Esme herself: she is a pleasant protagonist with a realistic-sounding voice, despite the flaws in developing and explaining her motivations. But her character alone cannot and does not carry the book particularly successfully, in the absence of better secondary characters and a more fully formed story arc.
The setting is emphatically today, complete with emoji-filled text messages, and the setting is urban rather than rural, in Paula Chase’s So Done. Here the focus is on finding out what friendship really means and how it changes and survives as young people grow. The young people here, who are both 13 even though the book’s target age range is 8-12, are longtime best friends Metai (Tai) Johnson and Jamila (Mila) Phillips. The book is told, as books of this sort so often are, in chapters alternating between the protagonists. The girls have been together since they were toddlers growing up in a typically gritty low-income housing project. Now they still have a love of dance in common, and are both looking forward to an audition for a distinguished program for talented fine-arts students. But how much else do they still have in common? That is the core issue of the novel. The girls’ personalities have, it seems, always been opposite: Mila is quiet and laid-back, looking forward to getting out of the city, and she feels free after spending a summer in the suburbs with her Aunt Jaq and older sister; Tai, on the other hand, loves the urban energy of their longtime neighborhood and is happy there. Tai has been eagerly awaiting Mila’s return to the city because Tai and her crush, Roland, have grown closer over the summer and Tai wants Mila to share the enthusiasm. But there is distance between the two girls when they re-engage, possibly because of a mysterious incident at Tai’s house that makes Mila afraid to go there. So the book progresses through the standard concerns of uncertain friendship, growing-up questions, untold secrets, and friends moving in different directions – all while being as with-it as possible in exploring African-American speech patterns, hairstyles, and even preoccupations with longtime nicknames that will not go away (Mila no longer wants to be called Bean). So Done is aimed squarely at African-American preteen girl readers, who will likely find at least some elements of it appealing. But beneath the trappings of language, hair and references to tough street life, the book’s story is an entirely familiar one that never goes in any unexpected direction.