February 04, 2016
(++++) SWEETNESS AND BEYOND
Plant a Kiss. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Harper. $7.99.
Lost & Found. By Brooke Davis. Dutton. $16.
Small things and small people bloom and blossom in books for young readers and adults alike. Sometimes those books reach for meaning beyond their words, however simple those words (and accompanying pictures, if there are any) may be. Sometimes they find it, as occurs in Plant a Kiss, a lovely little board book in which Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s text is married perfectly to Peter H. Reynolds’ fairy-tale-like drawings to spin a charming little fable in which the phrase “plant a kiss” is taken literally – to very fine effect. “Little Miss/ planted a kiss./ Planted a kiss?/ Planted a kiss.” And the sweet Little Miss waters what she has planted, makes sure it has plenty of sunshine, greets it pleasantly day after day, and waits and waits for it to sprout. Which it does not. Hence: “Doubt./ Pout.” But then: “Sprout!/ SHOUT! SHOUT!” And the friends of Little Miss gather about to see a mostly shapeless golden speckled something-or-other weaving its way from the ground into the air. Little Miss is determined to share the joys of the kiss, despite the misgivings of her friends, and she does just that, sweeping it into a bright red bowl and bringing it to all sorts of people in all sorts of places, “To and fro./ High and low./ Rain or snow./ With a bow!” Until, at last, all is gone – and Little Miss returns to the place where she first planted the kiss – and then, wonder of wonders and delight of delights, the small golden sprout has spread to “endless bliss!” Golden tendrils of love and loveliness pour forth from the planted-kiss spot, leaving Little Miss at the end with plenty of love to spread wherever she may go – which is just what she sets out to do on the final, wordless page. A completely non-preachy way to suggest that love grows when tended properly, and grows even more when given away and shared, Plant a Kiss is everything a fable should be: short, simple, easy to read on a superficial level, yet concealing – barely below the surface – thoughts that go far beyond the words and pictures with which the story, on its most basic level, is told.
Considerably longer and more elaborate, but still possessing at its core the sensibilities of a fairy tale and a desire to reach out beyond the basics of the story it tells, Brooke Davis’ Lost & Found has a “Little Miss” of its own as its chief protagonist. She is seven-year-old Millie Bird, a red-haired amalgamation of pluck and seriousness whose mother improbably abandons her one day in the ladies’ underwear department of a store. The notion of a child left alone to discover who he or she really is, with the help of (often magical) mentors, is a basic story arc of fairy tales and is the scaffolding on which Davis builds her novel – her first novel, a point worth emphasizing in light of some of the notable weaknesses that accompany the book’s notable strengths. Little Millie, after hiding for a time and discovering that her mum is not returning for her, sets off to find her on the sort of quest journey that is quite typical of fairy tales. She soon crosses paths with two quirky old people, the sort who would be trolls or spirit guides in other fairy tales. One is Karl the Touch Typist, who is 87 and mourning the death of his wife – and who has escaped from a nursing home. He is called Touch Typist because he constantly touch-types letters to his dead wife. The other is a widow named Agatha Pantha, who is 82, has not left her home in seven years, and spends her time shouting insults at whatever she can see from her living-room window. Her name is as descriptive as Karl’s, since in Australia, where Davis is from, Agapanthus perennials – large, flowering plants sometimes called “lily of the Nile” – are often considered to be weeds. Obviously the relationship among these three characters is going to be as symbolic as all get-out. Davis makes that all too clear by introducing oddity after oddity: the red gumboots that Millie always wears, the plastic sidekick named Manny with whom Karl travels, the constant shouting of the cranky Agatha. The purported plot has the three joining forces to search for Millie’s mother, who obviously does not want to be found but is going to be anyway, if these three have anything to say about it. The book is about the journey, however, not the destination, except insofar as the destination is greater understanding of life at the end than at the beginning. Really, the underlying topic of the whole book is less life than it is death: the novel begins disconcertingly and on an unpleasant note with Millie’s dead dog and her parents’ apparent indifference to it, continues as Millie assembles a list of dead things, and goes onward as one thing on the list turns out to be Millie’s own father; and of course there are the dead spouses of Karl and Agatha always in the background as character motivation (or, if not motivation, explanation). The fact that this is a first novel comes through again and again, sometimes gratingly, in Davis’ tendency to lay everything on too thickly: Millie’s repeated notes to tell her absent mother that she is “In here mum,” and Karl and Agatha’s increasingly childish (as opposed to childlike) behavior, all come across entertainingly and even charmingly for a while, but all are done to death – well, not quite to death, but certainly tending in that direction – as the book goes on. And on. It is actually a short novel, but it comes to seem longer through its tendency to belabor the obvious (notably in Davis’ portraits of the elderly characters: it is as if she has had very little contact with the real-life elderly). The total absence of reality in the book – recluse Agatha quickly becomes outgoing as she rapidly and without any real explanation intermingles her life with Millie’s and Karl’s, for instance; and no one ever really tries to track down and rescue the abandoned seven-year-old, for another example – is justified by its underlying fairy-tale structure. That structure also makes it sensible, or at least understandable, to have the three protagonists eventually give up their unsuccessful quest and go back the way they came, sadder and wiser and better connected to each other and all that. But the fairy-tale underpinnings are not enough to salvage the book’s ending, which is abrupt and rather peculiar, as if Davis understood that a book preoccupied with death has to end with something about death, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Davis’ writing tends to be quaint and sentimental when she presumably wants it to be heartfelt, and some aspects of her presentation – such as putting words spoken aloud in italics in the middle of narrative paragraphs, an abrupt and jarring technique – come across as affectations, and irritating ones at that. There are enough charms in the book, especially in some of the characteristics of Millie, to garner it a (+++) rating, but it is scarcely as profound as it wants to be and certainly not as revelatory about the way life is (and the way death is) as Davis intends.