September 09, 2010


The Wonder of Charlie Anne. By Kimberly Newton Fusco. Knopf. $16.99.

Sunshine Picklelime. By Pamela Ellen Ferguson. Illustrated by Christian Slade. Random House. $16.99.

Windblowne. By Stephen Messer. Random House. $16.99.

Rocky Road. By Rose Kent. Knopf. $16.99.

     Inner and outer journeys tend to move in parallel in books for ages 8-12. The outer, physical travel takes many forms, but the inward progress – toward self-awareness and maturity – is usually pretty much the same from book to book. These four novels are, on the surface, as different as can be, but their protagonists all take the same trip internally, from naïveté and confusion to greater understanding of themselves and the world they live in.

     Charlie Anne’s world is the tough one of the Great Depression, and her family life is not easy, either. Her mother has died, her father and brother have gone north to find work building roads, and her little brother has been sent to live with an aunt and uncle. This leaves Charlie Anne at the family farm and in the care of her mother’s cousin, Mirabel – doing an endless series of tasks that take her away from enjoyable pastimes such as talking to farm animals and to her mother’s spirit (Mama’s grave is by the river). But then a neighbor, Mr. Jolly, brings home a forward-thinking, trousers-wearing new wife named Rosalyn – and a daughter, Phoebe, who is black. More importantly to Charlie Anne, Phoebe and she are the same age, and at last there is someone to talk to, to share things with, to make Charlie Anne’s life seem less constricted. But to the townspeople, the only thing that matters is the color of Phoebe’s skin, and Charlie Anne needs to learn important lessons about prejudice, about standing up for what is right, and about growing up by knowing when to challenge adults, before she can attain the maturity toward which, without fully knowing it, she has been striving. Kimberly Newton Fusco’s writing can be preachy – there is no question of who the good guys and bad guys are here, and Rosalyn talks in language more appropriate for the 1970s than the 1940s: “We do not need to be defined by our circumstances. We can make things different, we can change things, even climb right up and out of the boxes that some people want to put us in.” But the obviousness of the style and some plot elements will not diminish the charms of The Wonder of Charlie Anne for the preteen girls who will be its primary audience.

     They will be the primary audience for Sunshine Picklelime as well. This is the first book for young children by peripatetic journalist Pamela Ellen Ferguson, whose nine previous books (fiction and nonfiction) were for adults. Subtitled “A Story of Life, Laughter, and Lemonade,” the novel strives for cuteness from the start, and often attains it. PJ Picklelime, a little girl with big hair, lives in a village that seems to exist on the boundary between magic and the everyday; and that is where her life perches, too. PJ is one of those eternally perky, upbeat girls who talks to birds and gives one of them, a yellow warbler, a temporary home in her big crop of black hair. PJ later cuts her hair at one point (to help clean up an oil spill), and she makes lemonade that has some very special effects, and everything is simply delightful and quirky – until dark clouds appear, first in the form of fights between PJ’s parents and then in the death of a friend. Now PJ needs to confront reality, tinged with its inevitable sadness, while trying to preserve her happy-go-lucky nature; and this proves far from easy, even when she tries to find out how her friends and neighbors cope with life’s periodic reverses. Eventually, thanks to friends both human and animal – and her own inner resilience – PJ finds a way to integrate her winning personality with the difficulties that she knows she will surely encounter, preserving her inner brightness in a less naïve, which is to say more grown-up, way.

     There is even more of magic in Windblowne, which is both the title of the book and the name of the town where the protagonist, Oliver, lives. It is a town where kite-flying skill is crucial, but Oliver is like Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown: every kite he tries to fly crashes. A major kite-flying festival is coming up, and Oliver wants desperately to prove himself, so he tracks down his reclusive great-uncle Gilbert, a former champion, to get help. But Gilbert is kidnapped (by kites) and Oliver, searching for him, journeys to another world (yes, by kite) to search for him. There he finds a kind of negative town of Windblowne, where Gilbert’s evil twin is destroying oak trees to obtain energy that he plans to use to rule the world – while Oliver’s Gilbert has been banished. Stephen Messer’s book has all the elements of a grand, heroic and potentially very amusing journey, but he plays the tale straight throughout, which somewhat undermines its effectiveness. This is Messer’s debut novel, and the entire adventure seems derivative not only of Diana Wynne Jones (whose work helped inspire the book) but also of other modern post-Tolkien fantasists. The use of kites is clever and offbeat, and there are occasional flashes of amusement in the writing: “‘I’m imagining things again,’ he whispered to the kite. The kite offered no opinion.” But by and large, Messer takes the story seriously, whether Oliver is being yanked by a kite from place to place, captured by surly guards, or trying to interpret an ancient manuscript while being pursued by the bad Lord Gilbert’s hunters. His eventual triumph over evil, if not at the kite-flying festival, is no surprise; neither is his return to home, wiser and more experienced than before. Many of the settings of Windblowne are unusual; its plot is much less so.

     Nor is the plot of Rocky Road anything special. Here again are family issues: single mom (Pop “stormed out for good with all his stuff” years ago) raising the book’s protagonist, Tess, and Tess’s deaf little brother, Jordan. The twist in Rose Kent’s novel is that Ma lives by coming up with a series of get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably fail, landing the family in financial hardship. But now she has a get-not-so-rich-not-so-quickly idea: move to rundown downtown Schenectady, New York, and open an ice-cream parlor. Kent gives short shrift to the irresponsibility of this whole way of raising children; and even though she makes Tess well aware of the family’s financial problems and Ma’s periodic collapses (days when she cannot even get out of bed), the author stays determinedly upbeat and has Tess do so as well, at least most of the time. The title of the book is, of course, a giveaway of the plot, since it is not only an ice-cream flavor but also a description of the family’s life – including the notions that 1) the road may be rocky, but the eventual taste will be sweet; and 2) it is the simple pleasures in life, such as ice cream and family, that really matter. The ice-cream parlor, called A Cherry on Top, turns out, of course, to be more expensive than Ma ever figured (lease, business insurance, jukebox, dipping cabinet, and of course all the ingredients). But in this town, Tess is growing up and really getting involved in things on her own (notably peer mediation); and eventually everything works out, thanks to a combination of a Cinco de Mayo celebration, an adventure with a turtle, and Tess’s determination to make the Resuscitate State Street Association a success. A nice “Smattering of Ice Cream Recipes from A Cherry on Top” provides a sweet postlude to a story that ends as happily as readers will expect and desire, despite the very expectable bumps along the way.

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