Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Serious Book For Younger Readers

My goodness! I've read another award winner! Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee Frazier won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award last week.

The back of Brendan Buckley contains the following information: "In ten years, I'd never once met my grandpa. My mom didn't want to talk about him. Now suddenly I'd discovered him, and he was a scientist, just like me. Where had he been? Why couldn't we talk about him? This is what I found out..."

As God is my witness, I read that, and I looked at what I took to be a fun cover, and I thought, Oh, grandpa's going to be some kind of mad scientist or something! What fun!

Well, grandpa's not a mad scientist. Not even close. This isn't the first time I've made a mistake like this. I'll spare you the details.

I will tell you, though, that I enjoyed Brendan Buckley a lot more then you would think, given my embarrassing misunderstanding about what I was getting into.

First off, I have to say I think the book would have been better served with a third- person narrator rather than a first. Brendan doesn't have a particularly powerful or unique voice, anyway, and sometimes he sounds too cute. I think a third-person narrator would have helped avoid that.

And though I'm always happy to read about Tae Kwon Do, in this particular case, it seemed as if the TKD thread's only function was to teach ethics. I'm not faulting Frazier's knowledge of the subject, by any means, but I think the Tae Kwon Do material detracted from the story.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'll also point out that the story is Brendan Buckley's big strength. Young Brendan is a biracial child. He's got a great little life going. He's got wonderful parents, he's got friends, and school doesn't seem to present any big problems for him. His black grandparents are terrific. (Grandma is a pistol.) Though his father has tried to warn him of what he may confront in the future as a young black man, to date Brendan hasn't experienced a lot of racism. The worst thing that has happened to him so far in life is the death of his beloved grandfather a few months before our story begins.

When he accidentally meets his white grandfather for the first time and realizes gramps lives nearby even though the two of them have never laid eyes on one another before, he figures this is his chance for another grandpa. He picks up on the fact that there's something wrong within the family--no one wants to talk about this grandfather, who, at first, doesn't even know who Brendan is. So Brendan sets out on his own to approach the old man and try to develop a relationship with him.

Now, even though this adult reader easily figured out what the old guy's problem was, I wanted to keep reading because this is a compelling family story. Identity within family...connections across generations...I love that stuff. I wondered if kids would be as interested. I'm guessing they will. Again, identity and one's place within the family are supposed to be classic themes of children's literature. Plus, there is a mystery element here that kids may really enjoy.

In addition to having a good story, the second thing I think Brendan Buckley has going for it is that, while it may sound like one on paper, it isn't a problem book. Racism isn't a problem for Brendan at this point in his life. When ol' granddad comes out with the cliched argument against inter-racial marriage--"It's always the kids who suffer," Brendan replies, "I'm not suffering."

The third thing I think Brendan has going for it is that, though Amazon lists it as having a reading level of 9 to 12, I think it leans toward the lower end of that range. It's not an oppressively heavy book and could serve as an introduction to the world of more serious reading for, say, third or fourth graders.

I'd never heard of Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It before I stumbled upon it at my library. I hope the award it won last week brings the title more attention.

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