April 16, 2015


I Was a Child: A Memoir. By Bruce Eric Kaplan. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.

Blackbird Fly. By Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Angst and childhood go together – as do angst and adulthood, of course, but that is another matter. Different memoirs and novels tend to handle the stresses and worries of being young in different ways, thus connecting with readers at different levels. Bruce Eric Kaplan’s approach is almost insidious in its effectiveness. Kaplan is a television writer and producer who also contributes single-panel cartoons to The New Yorker regularly. I Was a Child uses his TV-honed narrative skill (brief, to-the-point sentences) and his cartooning ability to produce a bittersweet story of his childhood, up until the deaths of his parents. Nearly every page has some sort of illustration, often more than one: a crying bee (an image from a dream he had), a Cub Scout uniform (with the parts labeled), an enormous pinball machine (from a failed TV game show), pictures of bad haircuts (his own and those of his brothers, Michael and Andrew), a matchbook offering a free talent test (“there were tons of matchbooks offering ways of improving your life”). The illustrations go with a series of anecdotes, such as one about the family getting lost while searching for a tunnel entrance and the father stopping to ask directions from a man who “had a creepy hollow expression on his unwashed face, and his clothes looked like he had been wearing them for weeks. He was barefoot and was carrying a bucket of dirty dishwater. …The only sane reaction to him would be to drive quickly away. …The man mumbled something incoherent. My father asked again. Again, the man mumbled something incoherent. Then, finally, we just drove away. At that moment, I realized my parents really might not know how to do anything at all.” Elsewhere are the small memories that somehow stay with adults, as of Kaplan’s mother’s “square glass ashtray she always flicked her ashes in. She looked so happy carrying her ashtray into the living room. I would give anything to have that ashtray now.” And the revelations of childhood: “I knew in that moment that neither [my mother] nor my father could ever handle knowing the truth about anything.” And the maybe-revelations: “I was only invited to that kid’s birthday once. I was in his class that year and was his friend. Then summer came, and the following year I wasn’t in his class, so I stopped being his friend. That’s a real life lesson, but I am not sure what the lesson is. If anyone knows, please tell me.” Sometimes the pictures pull the story along: one shows a jam-packed swimming pool, the next an empty pool after a child has a bathroom accident in the water, the one after that a packed pool again after the water has been cleaned. More often, though, the pictures supplement text that often seems to be holding back tears: “I remember one drive-in movie where I was struck by the fact that we were all pretending that this was a good experience, but it wasn’t. That became a very familiar feeling.” And: “I remember being in a gas station and looking at other families parked at the other pumps, studying them. They seemed like real families and we seemed like we were pretending to be a real family.” Of course, Kaplan’s family was a real one, as real as any, with all the pluses and minuses and small happinesses and small (but seemingly great, to a child) disappointments that are inevitable in families. I Was a Child manages at once to be a highly personal look at the positives and negatives of a particular family – and a surprisingly convincing treatise on the foibles that affect families everywhere and that resonate into children’s adults lives and thence, one must assume, to a whole new set of families.

     The problems of being young are given more forthrightly in novels intended to be read by young readers themselves – and so are the solutions, which tend to be pat, without any implication that issues of childhood will carry over in any way into adult (or even teenage) life. Novels, after all, have a neat beginning, middle and end, especially novels for ages 8-12. The debut book by Erin Entrada Kelly, Blackbird Fly, is a case in point. Kelly’s 12-year-old protagonist, who bears the unlikely name of Apple Yengko, moved from the Philippines to Louisiana when she was little, and is now – in middle school, a time of significant change and worry for a great many students – confronting all the ways in which she is different from her classmates. Apple thinks there are three IFs (interesting facts) about everyone, but unfortunately hers are problematical: slanted eyes, her strange nickname (her real name is Analyn), and a mother who continues to cook Filipino foods and complains that Apple is becoming too Americanized. Soon Apple faces the usual issues in books like this: boys, bullying, bullying by boys, an absence of friends, and so forth. But Apple has an escape: music, specifically Beatles music (the Beatles’ Apple Corps distributed their songs). Already labeled the third-ugliest girl in school, Apple determines to get enough money to buy a guitar, which she will learn to play and thus change her life and everyone’s attitude toward her: “I thought about New Orleans. I imagined strumming a guitar and singing until my voice blended in with all the sounds of the city. No one would know me there. Maybe I could meet other musicians and join a band.” Readers of this (+++) book will be totally unsurprised to discover that things do not work out as Apple hopes they will, and that the ties of friendship rather than music – in the form of two new friends – are what really matter and really help Apple stabilize herself and improve her self-image. At the end, not surprisingly in a story like this, Apple learns family secrets, comes to terms with her mother (as her mother comes to terms with her own past), and does find some musical success. Finally, Apple triumphantly changes her IFs to reflect what she has learned about herself, and music, and friendship. The story arc here is hyper-familiar and is about as effective as tales of preteen outsiders finding themselves usually are: moderately so for preteen readers who consider themselves outsiders, as so many do.

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