On the eve of the National Book Award finalist announcements, I’m coming out the gate with my dark horse: THE KNEEBONE BOY.
There were three of them. Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better. They lived in a small town in England called Little Tunks. There is no Big Tunks. …I was the one voted to tell this story because I read the most novels, so I know how a story should be told. Plus I’m very observant and have a nice way of putting things; that’s what my teacher Mr. Dupuis told me. I can’t tell you which Hardscrabble I am–Otto, Lucia, or Max–because I’ve sworn on pain of torture not to. They said it’s because the story belongs to all three of us, and I suppose they’re right, but it seems unfair since I’m doing all the work. No one can stop you from guessing though.
Otto, Lucia and Max’s story pretty much defies summary. There’s a missing mother (hm, interesting comparison to KEEPER?), a harrowing night lost in London, a castle folly in a place called Snoring-by-the-Sea, a ghost, a sultan, a secret. But it’s the writing that makes this story zzzing. The narrator keeps his/her idenity artfully technically hidden, though the reader can pretty quickly and accurately guess, therefore getting to feel as smarty-pants as the narrator his/herself. There’s the way that Otto talks without speaking, and the way that certain secrets are laid out obviously though adults talk around them enough to obscure them (except, often, to Max, who usually does know better). There’s the very matter-of-fact way in which horrible situations are presented, lending a surreality that readers made identify with: no, this is not how their life is (thank goodness!), but certainly how it often feels.
I’m guessing that author Potter identifies herself with the young Great Aunt Haddie, who the Hardscrabble’s dad Casper notes is “an odd one.” “Good odd,” amends Lucia, as she reads a note from Haddie:
“Congratulations! If you are reading this it means that you are not dead, decapitated, or otherwise mortally wounded. …You might be feeling disappointed right about now because you have faced dark tunnels and high cliffs and grave danger, yet nothing has changed. …Though you have risked life and limb, you still have to clip your toenails every so often. Your lives will feel pretty blechy for a while. All heroes feel that way after their adventure is over. But not to worry. You’ve had a big adventure before the age of fourteen, and now your lives will never be the same. Adventure is addictive, my friends. Before long you’ll find some other way to risk your necks. Poor old Casper!”
By returning her characters to as ordinary a life as possible after putting them through extraordinary circumstances, Potter allows for the reader to claim the same life-changing feeling, just for having been there.
This is my kind of book: good odd. It makes me think of one of my all-time favorites: THE CANNING SEASON by Polly Horvath. And it is already suffering from the same kind of mixed criticism that such risk-taking odd-voiced books acquire. While the Booklist reviewer doesn’t mince enthusiasm (“Hilarious and heartbreaking, wild and down-to-earth”), the Kirkus reviewer, while seemingly equally enthusiastic, ends with this trivializing qualifier: “a quirky charmer.” And the SLJ reviewer simply can’t get on board. Should this book be discussed by the Newbery committee, it’s likely to pick up a similar array of sentiment. Which is not to say that it doesn’t stand a chance…especially as I think it will instill a kind of Hardscrabble fever in its fans. It’s currently in my top 3, and the only fiction title there.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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