Make the mistake of asking me and I’ll gladly talk your ear off about the state of current children’s literature and the sad deficeit of early chapter books published for 2nd-4th graders today. Encourage me further and I’ll wax eloquent on the plethora of series books for that age range coupled with the total and complete lack of anything else worthwhile in the meantime. I talk and I talk and I talk, but don’t listen to me too closely. For all that I lament the state of children’s publishing in this particular area, there are shiny little jewels of early chapter books lurking in many a publisher’s upcoming catalog, if only you’ve a quick enough eye to spot them. This summer author Janet S. Wong has written a companion novel to her previous early chapter verse title Minn and Jake. Understated, amusing, and with a delicate sense of how tween logic works, you won’t need to have read Wong’s previous novel to appreciate her keen sense of how kids operate emotionally when they have to suffer disappointment.
What a horrible idea. Jake thought he was so incredibly brilliant when he persuaded his parents not to send him to any camps or sign him up for any lessons this summer. Who could have predicted that summer without anything to do is so dull? Worse still, Jake’s been humiliated in front of perfect wonderful Haylee Hirata not once but TWICE in the past few days. In the midst of his misery he fails to properly write or talk to his best friend Minn, the tall lizard-loving tomboy who has a surprise up her sleeve. Guess who’s coming to town to visit? Minn and Jake’s friendship is sorely put to the test, however, when Jake’s frustration and Minn’s confusion lead to an almost (but not quite) terrible summer.
Ms. Wong has an ear for childhood friendships. The nice thing about Minn and Jake is that they’re at that age where boys and girls can still be best friends though there’s that impending threat of puberty on the horizon. As of this book Jake is only ten, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends isn’t still bandied about. Wong gets kids. She gets them in the section entitled, “Boyfriend and Girlfriend” in which half the conversation is transcribed in unspoken words and phrases. As the book says, “When you talk with a good friend, / half the conversation is in parentheses / You know what your friend is thinking.” And the discussion about Jake’s heritage is well coupled with his angry retort to Minn’s question of why it hasn’t come up before; “Did you ever tell me that you’re white?”
Mind you, I’m not a particular fan of verse novels that are verse for the heck of it. Generally I like a book’s format to be justified in its text. For example, the remarkable Diamond Willow was written in verse because the diamond patterns of the text connected to the story as a whole. Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer, however, doesn’t really need to be in verse. I liked it, of course. I didn’t find the verse to be distracting or anything. But at the same time I couldn’t help but think that there wasn’t any reason in the world why the book had to be written this way. That said, Wong does have a way with words. I enjoyed the way in which her sentences ricochet the action. “Jake’s mother frowns at Halmoni / The frown bounces from Halmoni to Jake / Ouch!” Plus I appreciate the fact that Wong is one of the few authors who mentions the amount of time an average kid spends watching the “floaters” dance in front of their eyes.
I could have been drawn to read this book for a lot of reasons, but maybe one of them had to do with the fact that I have a deep and abiding affection for illustrator Genevieve Cote. She’s one of those truly delightful artists able to mix just the right elements of silliness and loveliness. Her Missuk’s Snow Geese, for example, is sublime. Here Ms. Cote’s pictures appear at random, usually taking up a full page. They appear to be pen and ink with maybe an ink wash for shading (though I could be completely wrong). It’s hard to pinpoint what’s so nice about them. Maybe it’s the fact that they feel like they were illustrated in another country, but indulge in American ridiculousness in all the right ways. For example, when Soup performs well in the ice cream eating contest the accompanying image is of a gigantic ice cream cone and Soup’s head as the scoop, tongue out at the side. I was also particularly taken with the image of the airplane flying, its shadow revealed to be a lizard with stubby arms and legs outstretched. Most of Ms. Cote’s choices were pitch perfect, but I was a little thrown by her interpretation of what video games look like. The book doesn’t appear to be historical (a the reference to Halo 2 confirms as much), and yet when Jake starts daydreaming about the video game that’s gonna make him a millionaire it looks like a contemporary of Donkey Kong. Most odd.
To my mind the book has the feel of a friendship down pat. Being with someone else isn’t cutesy or even necessarily easy. Yet when all is said and done, Minn and Jake are real friends and I like to think that they’ll be able to maintain this closeness even through the murky waters of teenagerhood. For the kid that mopes around this summer complaining that there’s nothing to do, this is an ideal book to foist into their sweaty little palms. A truly enjoyable read filling a very real and undeniable need. Worth a gander at any rate.
Notes on the Publication Date: It seems a little cruel to the author to have a book where a child worries about wasting his entire summer and then to release it at the END of summer itself. Bit of a pity, that.
Note on Names: Jake’s little brother is named Soup. This brings my count of children’s book characters named Soup to two (you can thank Robert Newton Peck for the first).
By the way, it’s Poetry Friday, peeps. Check out The Well-Read Child for the round-up.