August 16, 2018
(+++) IN SEARCH OF IDENTITY
The Turning. By Emily Whitman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Courage. By Barbara Binns. Harper. $16.99.
Why Can’t I Be You. By Melissa Walker. Harper. $16.99.
The question “who am I?” is pervasive in novels for readers ages 8-12, and it emerges in a wide variety of guises. Fantasy is one way for preteens to explore the reality of feeling conflicted and unsure of oneself – an example being The Turning. This is a book with a common theme, of being caught between two worlds and unsure where one belongs, but with a fantasy twist: the central character, Aran, is a selkie, a seal/human creature who lives at sea with others of his kind. He is 11 and has always thought of himself as a selkie pup even though he was born not wearing his pelt, as selkies in this novel usually are. Despite his mother’s reassurances, Aran is constantly reminded that he is not like the other selkies, being unable to swim as far or as fast as they do or to hold his breath as long underwater. The truth eventually comes out: Aran’s father was human, so he really is torn between two worlds and may not fit into either one. The selkies’ Moon Day passes and Aran still does not have a pelt, so his mother heads north to ask advice from the ancient wise ones living there – and perhaps to obtain a pelt from them for her son. The journey is too far for Aran, who is therefore left with a kindly old human woman named Maggie and, predictably, develops a friendship with her; with a girl named Nellie; and with Nellie’s grandfather, who is used mainly for the narrative purpose of filling readers in on what selkies are and what the legends about them include. Eventually Aran gets his pelt, brought back from the north by his mom, and has to choose whether to return to the sea in fully-fledged selkie form or remain with his newfound land family and friends. Emily Whitman insists that this is a one-or-the-other choice, which makes sense from the perspective of the typical “who am I?” preteen book. But the starkness of the decision makes the novel less interesting, because when Aran, rather predictably, chooses to remain on land but transform to a seal from time to time, in a place where no one will see him, the result feels like a failure to reconcile opposites – although a reconciliation of conflicts is exactly what young readers in the target age range will likely be hoping to achieve. The Turning is pleasant enough and told without major, unnecessary drama, but its conclusion rings a bit false.
Water figures in a different way in Barbara Binns’ Courage, one of those books clearly designed to be gritty and socially aware. The story takes place entirely on land, mostly in one of the tougher parts of Chicago, and is intended to be realistic; but water matters a great deal, because the protagonist, 13-year-old T’Shawn, loves diving and wants to be on a diving team. And lo and behold, he is so good, so naturally talented, that he is offered a scholarship that will allow him to join an expensive and prestigious diving club. Everything would be wonderful if it were not for a few non-diving-related matters. T’Shawn has a troubled past, having been raised by his mother after his father’s death from cancer – a hugely expensive as well as emotionally wrenching experience that landed the family in a shelter because of overwhelming medical debt. Equally troubling is the gang involvement of T’Shawn’s older brother, Lamont, who has been sent to prison – but is coming out just in time to move back home and ruin everything for T’Shawn. Binns trots out every possible politically correct element in this help-the-worthy-but-downtrodden novel. There is police brutality, domestic violence, sickle-cell disease, and the lure of Lamont’s old life, to which T’Shawn is sure his brother, whom T’Shawn calls “the biggest villain I know,” is returning. The writing is forced and is weighted with heavy discussions of social concerns; the inherent goodness of African-Americans and cluelessness-to-evil of whites is pervasive; and the notion that awful, persistent American racism is solely responsible for gang violence and the problems of contemporary African-American life is a large part of the book’s primary theme. Courage is clearly aimed at young African-American readers who believe that they, like T’Shawn, could be hugely successful if only someone would give them a windfall that would let them pursue their dreams. Binns is so determined to skew the reality for those assumed readers that she gives short shrift to matters that could actually help the novel reach out to a wider readership: the importance of home and family, middle-school angst, early-teenage crushes, and more. There is nothing courageous about an author mining the rich vein of “poor me” victimhood as Binns does here. The “who am I?” question can be, and has been, handled with far greater sensitivity than this.
The “victim” element in Melissa Walker’s Why Can’t I Be You is an economic rather than racial one (although one major character is mixed-race), and the emotional interaction among Walker’s characters is less fraught and seems less author-manipulated than in Binns’ novel. Walker does, though, go through highly familiar territory for preteen readers – it is to Binns’ credit that she at least tries to introduce people and themes outside the norm of books for this age group. In Why Can’t I Be You, protagonist Claire and her friends are all turning 12 and trying to figure out, yes, who they are and what seventh grade will be like. Clair is finally allowed to stay on her own at the trailer park where she lives while her mother works. That should give her more time to spend with best friend and next-door neighbor Ronan, but since Ronan’s father returned home, Ronan has suddenly taken to social media to make his life seem better than it is. As if that is not confusing enough, Claire’s other best friend, Brianna, recently moved into a big, fancy house, complete with a pool, and is starting to behave with an aura of assumed sophistication that Claire cannot understand. Brianna is having a boy-girl birthday party instead of the single-gender one of the past, and Brianna too is becoming active on social media, friending boys as well as girls. Adding to Claire’s confusion is Brianna’s cousin, biracial Eden, who is visiting Brianna for the summer and seems already to possess the more-adult outlook on life that Brianna and Ronan seem to be trying on for size. Claire is overly naïve – at one point, Eden actually has to explain to her why she looks different from Claire – but her struggle to figure out where she fits in a world that seems to be changing around her has resonances of reality. And her imperfect-but-caring parents, a refreshing change from the typically feckless or overwhelmed ones usually found in novels for preteens, actually care enough to help Claire become a better listener to Brianna and Eden, seeing past their surface appearances and activities to their inner life. The parents also help Claire understand what is going on with Ronan and his father. Claire, of course, eventually finds out that the only one she can be as she grows older is herself, and the eventual happy ending seems less forced and manipulative than the endings of both The Turning and Courage. Walker plows no new ground in Why Can’t I Be You, but she handles the familiar territory of the book with enough care and sensitivity to produce an attractive presentation for the middle-school girls for whom the book is clearly written.