This is our last “buzz” post, but tomorrow Betsy and I are going to go out on a limb and make some predictions about the winner–maybe even name some titles that should be the winner.
The Truth of Me, by Patricia MacLachlan. HarperCollins, 2013, 114 pages. Age/interest level: 8-14.
Janie: Robert, the latest in a long family line of Roberts, and the only child of professional musicians, knows a lot of stuff. But he’s not sure he has a grip on truth. Like, what’s the truth of him? Take the parental emptiness he’s always feeling around—an impression that his mother loves her violin more than she does him. Can that be . . . true? There’s also his beloved grandma Maddy and her stories, which Robert isn’t sure he can accept, particularly the stories about her special touch with animals. Still, Robert shares things with Maddy that he can’t share with his mom, for (as his grandmother explains) “Your mother thinks things should be a certain way. Her way.” During a summer visit with Maddy while his parents are touring Europe with their string quartet, Robert has an opportunity to explore both his inner and outer world. His grandmother’s good friend Henry is on hand to help: “We all have our truths, kiddo. Some are big truths. Most times they’re small truths.” But most of it has to be worked out by Robert himself. The big question, perhaps, is how much truth can be shared. It takes a crisis—an incident that’s frightening and could be life-changing—to shake loose “the truth of me.”
Patricia MacLachlan specializes in subtle, simple tales that pick at the surface of daily life in order to get to the mainsprings. Her kind of story-telling is out of fashion but deserves a place, and often a second thought. My hackles tend to rise at talk of “my truth” and “your truth,” but relativism is not her point. She’s not talking about eternal verities, only the profound insights one gains about how outside influences shape our understanding of our inner selves. What was your impression, Betsy?
Betsy: I think you’re right, Janie. I, too, am uneasy when folks start throwing around phrases like “my truth,” and even the title The Truth of Me hints at that. Yet MacLachlan’s stories often have an introspective element that doesn’t jive with relativism in the way we usually talk about it. Robert is indeed realizing the truth about himself and that includes his troubled relationship with his mother as well as his lack of faith in his grandmother’s stories. As he comes to realize these things about himself, he also begins to realize that everyone has a “truth” about themselves that makes them unique people–not just “mom” or “grandmother,” but a person with likes/dislikes, personality quirks, and feelings. These new understandings help Robert love his mother more for who she is. MacLachlan writes “early chapter books” that target the 7-10 year old crowd, a group that usually gets the likes of Magic Treehouse or other formulaic fiction. I appreciate an author like MacLachlan who consistently encourages her readers to think.
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Literary value: 4
Janie: Well said! And now I’d like to pull a fast one and comment on a novel that should be a contender but probably won’t, even though it received a lot of praise. Dog lovers and verse lovers, be on the lookout for
Mountain Dog, by Margarita Engle, pictures by Olga and Alesky Ivanoff. Henry Holt, 2013, 214 pages. Age/interest level: 8-14.
Tony’s experience until the age of 12 is the L. A. underworld, where his mother trains dogs to fight and then pits her animals against others for money. “Getting caught,” for her, means jail time—and off she goes, with scarcely a second look at her only child. Fortunately there’s a hitherto-unknown relative who can take him, great-uncle (Tio) Leonilo. Tio Leo is a forest ranger in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest whose specialty is training and employing Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs. He, and his chocolate lab Gabe, are more than willing to share their two-room cabin with a damaged kid. Any red-blooded suburban boy would jump at the chance, but Tony’s stunted vision will have to expand in order to appreciate the golden opportunity he’s been given. Soon enough, though, the mountains and Gabe will begin to work on him, and the walls will begin to come down. Tony still has his struggles with kids at school (particularly motor-mouth Grace) and a rescue operation that could have ended tragically. Also, visits with his mother in jail are heart-rending—she seems to care more about not missing a movie than she cares about time with him. Can she be redeemed? That’s not a problem with an easy solution.
But this is the rare children’s novel that deals with genuine sorrow in a positive way, and in spite of Tony’s grim upbringing, he (and the readers) will understand that he has been born into a world that’s fundamentally beautiful and good. God receives little direct credit, perhaps, even though Tio Leo regularly attends a cowboy church where dogs and horses are welcome (I’ve certainly never imagined a God who likes horses and dogs, Tony thinks). At the same time, we’re not fed a surfeit of happy-talk about being anything you want to be: We have to choose./ It’s part of adult life, this constant/ narrowing of wild wishes. And we must be aware of our own shortcomings: Anger is like a disease./ You can catch it./ You can give it. Tony’s voice doesn’t always sound like a 12-year-old, such as his description of SAR volunteers as “dedicated professionals,” but the free-verse narration often rings with sharp insights and beautiful comparisons. Gabe tells his side of the story (rescuing and training Tony is part of his job) in narration stuffed with smells. Some young readers will need a little time to become accustomed to the format, but any story about dogs and rescue is sure to appeal.
- Worldview/moral value: 4.5
- Literary value: 4.5