Recently I was able to pinpoint why exactly I have such a hard time reviewing Jacqueline Woodson’s recent books. I mean, Feathers was so difficult for me that I eschewed a review altogether and while I managed to put two words together for After Tupac and D Foster, it wasn’t a review that stuck in my mind as one of my more sterling efforts. So what is it about Ms. Woodson that throws me for such a loop? It’s not like she isn’t good at dialogue or realistic characters. Her books contain depth and complex situations. Reading her newest title Peace, Locomotion I was reminded of all of this. I was also reminded, however, that Ms. Woodson isn’t the kind of writer for whom fast-action and in-depth plotting holds much allure. There is a plot to this sequel to Locomotion but it’s slow. And removing it from my To Be Reviewed shelf a month after reading it doesn’t help all that much either. Peace, Locomotion may well be Ms. Woodson’s smartest novel yet. It’s thoughtful. Caring. Touching. Smart. And there are layers of depth to it that many a novelist would kill for. Don’t expect a car chase or anything, though. This is one for the kids with a brain in their heads and time on their hands.
When last we saw our hero, twelve-year-old Lonnie Collins Motion (or Locomotion to his friends), he was living with his new foster mother Miss Edna, while his nine-year-old sister Lili is living with another woman. There’s no one Lonnie really loves quite as much as his sister, but he doesn’t get to see her half as much as he would like. In lieu of seeing her, he writes her letters that he hopes to someday give to her when she’s older. Of course Lonnie is still mourning the death of their parents thanks to a fire years ago. On top of that Miss Edna’s son Jenkins is returning, injured, from the war in Iraq and Lonnie doesn’t know how he’ll deal with that and if he’ll be seen as some kind of interloper. Love and memory intersect in this thoughtful novel, causing Lonnie to work through the notions of families, old and new, and where he fits in.
If Locomotion was a novel of poems, Peace, Locomotion is a novel of letters, a fact Lonnie acknowledges right from the start saying, "I still write a few poems but mostly I’m writing these letters to you, Lili." A difficulty any author has when creating a realistic child character with a gift like Lonnie’s is in determining just how talented to make that child. Lonnie is a gifted poet. But how do you write in the voice of a kid without mistakenly allowing your own adult voice to shine through too strongly? When Woodson writes Lonnie’s poems for this book, they are certainly gifted. I would argue that they’re not unbelievably so, though. His limerick is a bit choice, but his later poem feels right. It’s just the right mix of childhood wisdom, simple words, and deeper meanings. I can see how people might feel otherwise, though. I mean they are pretty smart poems.
And writing, after all, is Woodson’s trademark gift. It’s what gets her all those pretty, shiny, round stickers on her books year after year. It’s the gift of being able to synthesize a thought into just a few smart words. For example, a sentence that could have gotten sentimental and too cute goes another way when she writes, "Then she told me that no matter how big you get, it’s still okay to cry if you need to because everybody’s got a right to their own tears." And I’m sorry but speaking of crying, getting your readers to tear up before you’re even ten pages in, heck before you’re even EIGHT pages in? Not playing by the rules. Mind you, I felt like Woodson was, for some reason, playing the tear card early, leaving my eyes dry and clear by the ending. That’s not a criticism, more an authorial choice that I wouldn’t mind thinking over and chewing at a bit.
As for the storyline itself, I was curious to see how she tackled the subject of post-traumatic stress within a scant 144 pages. The solution, it seems, is not to solve all the returning character’s problems but simply to show that person as willing learn and grow in new ways. 2009 is the publishing year when a huge swath of children’s books decided to finally start talking about the Iraq War. Previous children’s novels like The Homework Machine and 100 Days and 99 Nights lightly touched on it, but they were either scant references or they didn’t specify what war was being discussed. Now in addition to Peace, Locomotion we have Heart of a Shepherd, Bull Rider, and a host of other titles dealing with parents and siblings who have gone and come back. I’ve little doubt that we’ll be seeing quite a few more before the year is out.
But as I’ve said before, it’s a slow kind of story. You’re dealing with Lonnie’s love and loss when it comes to having a sister he can’t grow up with on top of his feelings about his newly returned foster brother. A book about emotions, thoughts, considerations, and growth isn’t necessarily going to grab kids in the same way as your average action packed narrative or fantasy conceit will. Remember, however, that there are kids out there that like realistic books that talk about things they live and things they can understand. And there are children out there that enjoy a well-crafted sentence and a perfectly coined phrase. With that in mind, there is an audience for Ms. Woodson’s works and there probably always will be. In a book that is oddly timeless for all that it relates to the issues of today, Peace, Locomotion is yet another win for the Woodson camp.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Title Font: I know that you guys are mighty proud to be publishing as much of Ms. Woodson’s works as you do, but you are aware that it looks as if the title of this book is “Jacqueline Woodson”, right?
Notes on the Cover: Which is not to say that the cover doesn’t work, because it really does. Rather brilliantly. From the hand you can make out that the title character is a child. You’ve a glimpse of Brooklyn buildings in the background, which gives the story a sense of place. The time period is clearly contemporary if you examine the boy’s shirtsleeve (or at least, that’s what I’m going to argue here). Then you get that lovely yellow sky with the soft peach and rose-colored clouds at the top fading into a light blue. The sun smack dab in the center between the peace sign created by the fingers actually makes you want to squint. I actually have a hard time looking at this without thinking on some level that it must be hurting my eyes. Funny how the mind works, eh? I notice on my Advance Readers Copy a small circle that says, “Advance Uncorrected Proof – Not for Resale” has been placed on the cover right above the title. I can’t help but wonder if a designer somewhere was getting a bit cheeky. Thinking along the lines of “Doesn’t this nice circular object look nice on this cover? Wouldn’t you want to put a gold circle of some sort there? Wouldn’t it just blend in beautifully with the sky?” Heh heh.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Welcome to my Tweendom
- A Patchwork of Books
- Goddess of YA Literature
- Harmony Book Reviews
- Pop Culture Junkie
- Lazygal Reads
- An interview with Ms. Woodson from PW Children’s Bookshelf about this book is up and running.
- There’s another interview with her that briefly touches on this book at The Brown Bookshelf.
- You can print out a free Discussion Guide for this book here, if you’ve a penchant to do so.