by Susan Patron
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006
I am turning over a new leaf a couple of weeks early, and never again assigning books for my parent-child book clubs that I have not yet read myself. I have good reasons for this. I had never read this book, but I've wanted to for years, and aside from the fact that it won the Newbery and I was pretty sure it would be fantastic, and that Darla recommends it, I knew very little about it.
Loved this book. Let's get that out of the way first.
Am not sure the kids in the group will love this book, but I think the parents will enjoy it, and I certainly hope they won't throw a fit over the word "scrotum" appearing. We shall see. It's a quieter story than the kids in this particular group tend to like, but it's also very short, so I think there is potential here. Also, it's hard not to love Lucky.
Lucky lives in the tiny town of Hard Pan in California, a little place in the middle of the desert that used to be a mining town but has dwindled down to a population of 43. Two of those people are Lucky and her guardian, Brigitte, a beautiful woman from France who has come to take care of Lucky at the behest of her entirely absent father, since Lucky's mother died two years before. And Lucky is certain that Brigitte is planning to head back to France any time now, leaving her entirely orphaned, so she will have to leave Hard Pan, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, her dog HMS Beagle, and everything she knows. So now Lucky really needs to find her Higher Power, like the people at the twelve step meetings she keeps eavesdropping on, because Lucky is planning to run away.
She is such a prickly child, Lucky. And she's an odd duck, there's no question. She has a very particular way of looking at the world, and it's highly amusing to an outsider, but to her it's a very serious way. She is working her way as logically as she can through some very difficult things - her mother's death is raw, and her fear of being abandoned is constant - and while an adult reader can look at Lucky and wonder exactly how she comes to the conclusions she does, they make perfect sense to the child Lucky is. She is also good-hearted, curious, and passionate. Her greatest hero is Charles Darwin. She likes snakes. How could I not love this kid?
Also, she is the kind of kid who describes things like this:
Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you're in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking - but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise.
"A panic of bad surprise." Isn't that great?
The other characters, particularly Brigitte, Lincoln, Miles, and Short Sammy, are seen through the very close lens of Lucky's perception, though the book is told in third-person. They are therefore somewhat limited in their characterization, but Patron does a good job of fleshing them out as well as she can for us. We see through Lucky's eyes, but we notice things that she does not, in her descriptions of events and reports of conversations. And Lucky is a pretty observant kid, about many things.
It would be remiss of me to forget to mention the charming illustrations by Matt Phelan sprinkled throughout the tale. They're pencil, black and white, and they perfectly suit the mood and tale, and bring Lucky and Hard Pan to life in a slightly whimsical way.
So, yes. This book: recommended. It's maybe not a must-read for an adult, but I don't think you would go wrong by reading it, and the story and characters have stuck with me well after the book was gone. I'm looking forward to seeing how the kids react to it. Kids who are looking for contemporary stories will eat this up. It's amusing, silly, serious, charming, and just the right length.