Humor is just so hard in children’s books. You either crash too hard on the adult side of the equation (see: The Manny Files) or you end up going too far the other direction and end up ridiculously scatological (see: Out of Patience). The balance has to be perfect and, if you want your book to be memorable, also work in some real emotion, heart, and (God help us all) learning. Because this mix is so difficult, you rarely end up with a book quite as pleasant as Linda Urban’s "A Crooked Kind of Perfect". First of all, it wins the 2007 Most Appropriate Title Award. Second, it has a firm grasp on hitting just the right tone. In a relatively blah year of realistic girl fiction, Urban’s book is a cut above the rest.
Zoe has dreams you know. Dreams of owning a gorgeous piano, all shiny and black. Of performing before vast adoring audiences. Of being a prodigy and admired by people like her classically inclined mother. So what does she get instead? An organ. A Perfectone D-60 if you want to be precise. And it’s not as if her school life is much of an improvement either. Her former best friend Emma Dent has informed her that Joella Tinstella is now her best friend right now, and to top it all off that bully Wheeler Diggs has somehow managed to ingratiate himself into her family. So when Zoe enters the Perform-O-Rama competition for organs she doesn’t expect much. Fortunately for her, she finds that people can surprise you when you least expect them to. Sometimes for the bad, but also sometimes for the good.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain that we haven’t come up with a name for children’s novels with short short chapters. You know the kind I mean. They look like verse novels at first, but a quick perusal shows that the author hasn’t broken up the action into strategically separated tiny sentences. I think the author chose this method because she prefers to keep things sharp and sweet. Her storyline works best when she can leap from thought to memory to current event. Some parents like to pooh-pooh those children’s books that eschew length for sure-footed pacing. I’ll admit right here and now that due to its format "A Crooked Kind of Perfect" really does make for an enjoyably quick book. You might want to consider handing it to those kids who like to read but are turned off by long wordy novels.
Plus it’s funny. I could give you five hundred examples from this book. I could also give you just one reason and leave it at that. One Reason: There is a chapter about the Fireside Scouts entitled, "I Don’t Need No Stinking Badges". Oh, how about two? There’s an organ teacher who swears by saying things like, "Handel’s Cousin Hannah". One more, one more. When a girl at the organ competition plays "Getting’ Jiggy Wit It" you STILL have overly competitive parents saying things like "I’d hardly call that jiggy" and "That girl could never have handled the original composition." Last one, I swear. When Zoe is given all the different Perfectone D-60 songbooks, she sees they all have names like "Hits of the Sixties" and "Hits of the Nineties". Naturally she wonders why there aren’t any "Hits of the Eighties". She is informed that there weren’t any. Fine. That’s more than just one reason. In fact, I had to actively not mention some of the other moments in this book that are amusing in and of themselves and, when taken as a whole, add up to one heckuva funny middle grade novel. You should be proud of me.
Urban makes some interesting choices in this book. Zoe’s father is never out-and-out diagnosed as OCD or anything along those lines. You know he’s seriously uncomfortable around people he doesn’t know. That he fears leaving the house. That he can’t deal with a lot of things that other parents could. There’s a moment, of course, when it mentions that Zoe and her family are watching, "the detective on TV get all weirded out about being in a crowded elevator." Those of you familiar with "Monk" might see how it applies to Zoe’s family. Few kids will, though. I’m fond of books that don’t go about slapping labels on every neurosis and character quirk you find. Zoe’s dad is just her dad. He has problems with people and crowds and shopping and traveling out of the house, but he’s also a really good father. The book makes that much perfectly clear.
FYI: You know you’re old when you run across the main character in a children’s book complaining that the songs she can play on her organ existed before she was born. Songs like "Seasons in the Sun" (fine), "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp-Bomp-Bomp)" (fine), and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (SOB!).
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)