October 23, 2008


The Good Neighbors, Book One: Kin. By Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove. By Yoko Kawashima Watkins. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

Bullyville. By Francine Prose. HarperTeen. $6.99.

Listen! By Stephanie S. Tolan. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

     The bad things that happen to people – some natural, some supernatural – and the way the survivors cope lie at the heart of all these books. Kin is Ted Naifeh’s graphic-novel interpretation of Holly Black’s first book about the intersection of the worlds of humans and faeries. But these are not tiny, wand-carrying beings, and Rue Silver’s question to one of them about whether she is the tooth fairy is just as grotesque as Black intends it to be. These faeries are human-sized, powerful and inimical to the human race, as one explains to Rue: “Long ago, mortals called us the fair folk, the people of peace, the good neighbors. They called us these things not because we were fair or peaceful or good, but because they feared us. As they should.” Rue, it turns out, has highborn faerie blood because of her mother – who has mysteriously disappeared. And Rue’s father, a professor, has been accused of murdering a student. But the real brutality in Kin is emotional, as Rue learns more and more about her heritage and must decide whether to join the faeries or remain with mortals: “A lot of kids have this fantasy that secretly they’re really the princess of a foreign country. Turns out that pretty much sucks.” Naifeh’s atmospheric art – the book is very dark – and Black’s intense story combine into a tale that, like Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles, is filled with threat, illusion and questions of identity.

     The brutality in So Far from the Bamboo Grove is that of war, and the story really happened. Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ book, originally published in 1986 and now available in a new paperback edition, follows Yoko through the last days of World War II, when the Japanese occupation of Korea was crumbling. Yoko is a child of both countries: Japanese and living with a Japanese family, but residing in northern Korea and knowing nothing about Japan – to which she must try to escape as the Koreans fight to throw out the occupying forces. Both Yoko and her brother, Hideyo, go through a series of harrowing events in making their escape from the North Korean Communists – often surviving purely by chance. But in Japan, they find all their relatives dead; and then their mother dies as well. Told in straightforward prose, Yoko’s story is no less horrific for being stylistically unadorned.

     Bullyville – first published last year and now available in paperback – is fiction, but the brutality of which it speaks has, unfortunately, plenty of real-world parallels. In fact, Francine Prose pulls the real world sharply into the book by having the father of Bart, the narrator, die in the collapse of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When Bart goes to Baileywell Preparatory Academy – the Bullyville of the title – things get even worse for him. This is a school where everyone bullies or is bullied, and Bart gets his very own master tormentor in the person of Tyro Bergen, the sort of young sadist who makes you understand why Bart remembers reading books about Nazi concentration camps. The evil culture of the school makes no impression on Bart’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing anything she does not want to see (her willful blindness – or unremitting dimness – is a flaw in the novel). There are powerful scenes in Bullyville, but the book is too preachy and feels too manipulative to have the sort of staying power that Prose surely wants it to have.

     Listen! presents the brutality of life in a different way, laying it on very thickly indeed. Stephanie Tolan’s book, published in 2006 and now offered as a paperback with a number of pet-related extras at the end, is about a sixth-grade girl named Charley who has a broken leg, a dead mother and a father who flees the family’s pain by working 80 hours a week. Despite the bleakness of Charley’s life, this is an uplifting book, because Tolan uses it to celebrate the special bond between people and animals. Charley meets an abused dog that has been running wild – and clearly has his own too-large-to-bear share of pain. Predictably but still movingly, Charley feels a connection to the dog and decides to help him; and in doing so, she slowly but surely moves beyond her own pain and finds more inner strength than she knew she possessed. The most heartwarming sections of the book are those in which Charley talks to the dog, Coyote, as if he is an equal – as when she explains why he has to wear a collar: “I won’t use it to make you do stuff you don’t want to do. …Well, sometimes I will, but only if it’s absolutely necessary and only if it’s for your own good. Like when a doctor comes to see you. There’s a law, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You need a shot – a couple of shots – to keep you from getting sick.” Although Listen! tries a little too hard to be moving, it still succeeds, thanks to the warmth evident both in Coyote and in Charley and the love that develops between them – love being, in the final analysis, the most effective antidote to brutalities of all types.

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