by Kelly Barnhill
Little Brown & Company, 2011
Grades 3 and up
Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.
When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time. . . .When I started reading this book, I was impressed with two things. First, the writing was excellent, it flowed smoothly allowing the reader to focus on the story rather than the writing. Second, the story was kind of weird and I'm not really into weird, many of the kids I work with are into weird but I'm not. So I was tempted to put the book down and go onto something else. But then I decided that wasn't fair, especially since the book had been mentioned as a Newbery contender by one of my favorite bloggers, A Fuse #8 Production. And I also have a hard time putting a book down without finishing it, I know that's silly, but that's the way I am. So I finished the book.
When he arrives, three astonishing things happen: First, he makes friends-not imaginary friends but actual friends. Second, he is beaten up by the town bully; the bullies at home always ignored him. Third, the richest man in town begins to plot Jack's imminent, and hopefully painful, demise. It's up to Jack to figure out why suddenly everyone cares so much about him. Back home he was practically, well, invisible. (Goodreads.com)
The plot line is definitely unique, I can't say I've read another book like it, ever (and I've read hundreds of books in my lifetime). I was really impressed at the way that Barnhill slowly revealed bits and pieces of the puzzle, which kind of makes the book a mystery, but it doesn't really feel like one. This would be a great book to hand to kids who want a mystery, but not a formulaic one.
Being a geography fan, setting is something I pay a great deal of attention to. Here, once again, Barnhill excels. The reader quickly gets a feel for this town that is in some ways like any other small town, but in other ways very unique. Here's an example,
It was an old wooden farmhouse with a large porch, wide windows, and a small round porthole at the roof's peak. And it was purple. A deep, rich purple so intense it almost seemed to vibrate. Jack squinted. The front door was bright green and the trim of each window was painted a different color: red, yellow, orange, and blue.You have to admit, that is a very intriguing description of the house that Jack comes to stay in. The reader realizes almost immediately that this is an unusual house. Barnhill has taken the regular world around us and given it a very interesting twist.
The characters I had a hard time with at first. Jack, who has spent most of his life being semi-invisible, has little interest in this new place or the people who live there, at least not at first. I found this hard to relate to, probably because I find the world a fascinating place. But slowly as I read, I realized that Jack was doing what many of us do when faced with changes that shake the very foundations of everything we though we knew. He was trying to ignore it. Of course, he eventually realizes the futility of this.
As I continued to read, I also began to connect with the other characters, Wende, the girl who is so determined to find out everything she can so she can protect those she loves. Frankie, the boy with the scars, both inside and out, whom everyone underestimates. Interestingly, I also started to feel compassion for the 'villain' of the story and his bully son. There aren't a lot of books, where I feel sorry for the villain. This happens to be one of them.
It turns out that this is one of the best books I've read this year and definitely worthy of Newbery consideration. I highly recommend it for all who enjoy interesting characters, an interesting setting, and a willingness to accept the weird. I'm thinking I might try it as a read-a-loud. There is certainly much that is worthy of discussion.
Here are some other reviews for you to check out:
The Boy Reader
And if you need a good laugh, check out Kelly Barnhill's blog. If you need something to make your eyes pop out, check out this. Wow!