I wonder if contemporary children’s authors ever look at the writers of the past and think to themselves, “It was easier then. You could get away with so much more.” Morality, at least in retrospect, was so clear cut and uncomplicated in the books of the past. You could have a kid defeat a great big villain with relative simplicity and folks wouldn’t object at all. Or maybe not. That’s how we think of old children’s books… as simple. But when you try to sit down and think of all the realistic novels of the past, their conclusions are never as free and easy as all that. I’m mentioning all this because I just finished, Operation Redwood, one of the finest children’s novels of the year, and while reading the book I kept thinking about how author S. Terrell French never cheats her readers. She is constantly covering her tracks and making this a strangely realistic middle grade novel, albeit one about kids trying to take down a big business. It’s a first novel on the author’s part, but French has crafted an interesting, intelligent, and ultimately satisfying debut that will undoubtedly garner more than a few fans. A book that shows us that doing the moral thing is a complicated business.
Let’s say you’re sick and your uncle Sibley Carter (with whom you’ve been staying while your mom works in China) has left you in his office for hours and hours. You are Julian Carter-Li and after your nap you’re bored. You sit in your uncle’s chair and there, right before your eyes, is an email in his in-box with your name on it. And after that? A message with the subject of “Sibley Carter is a moron and a world-class jerk.” It has begun. Prying where his eyes should not be, Julian learns that his uncle intends to destroy a patch of ancient redwoods and that the plucky girl who lives near them needs Julian’s help to stop the destruction. But what can a couple of kids really do? How about faux emails, daring escapes, a sit-in, and other plans? One thing’s for certain. After this summer, Julian’s life will never be the same again.
I think what I love about this book is how firmly it is rooted in reality. Not that I think this kind of story could actually happen in the real world, mind. But French has a wonderful sense of inserting real elements into a story when you least expect them. Kids (and adults) will walk into this book with a certain set of assumptions. So when they find that the child protagonists have clever plans that sometimes work and, more often than not do NOT work, that’s going to be a little shocking. Also shocking? Your hero runs away, gets to a beautiful place where you believe the rest of the book will take place, and then long before you’re even halfway through the novel his aunt comes and whisks him far far away. Whoa. It’s like the cover and the concept of the book were leading you astray. They’re not, but it feels that way for a second, and you become more wrapped up in the reading as a result.
Over and over again I noticed Ms. French was refusing to leave loose ends dangling or logical plot points flailing. How did Robin get Julian’s uncle’s personal email? “My brother’s taking a journalism course, and he was telling us how a lot of people, even big CEOs, read their own e-mail and their addresses are just their names and their company web addresses.” Pretty good explanation, eh? The book’s chock full of them. Either it was workshopped within an inch of its life, or Ms. French understands how to have things make sense.
Someone (perhaps the author Mitali Perkins) once wondered why it is that authors of middle grade and YA fiction feel the need to compare their characters’ eyes or skin to food when making it clear that those characters aren’t white. “Her coffee colored skin.” “His almond shaped eyes.” Well Ms. French isn’t falling into that trap, no sir. If she wants to making it clear that Julian has Chinese ancestry then there’s his last name to consider (Carter-Li) and his eyes, which are mentioned as being “upturned” at one point. Race plays an interesting part in the book, then. In this day and age, racism has grown subtle. People use code words to cover up how they really feel. And in this particular novel, you’ve the distinct impression that Julian’s aunt resents him, not just because he’s been “imposed” upon them, but also because his mother was Asian. But of course she never actually SAYS any of this. It’s far less obvious than that. And more realistic too.
They say to “show don’t tell” when you’re writing, so I was constantly amazed at how much bubbles beneath the surface of this book. Julian almost turns Robin’s dad into a kind of surrogate father, but the text never has him figure this out or say as much. It just happens. And since we’re getting everything from Julian’s perspective, he has a view of his life that doesn’t look too far beneath the surface of things. His aunt and uncle are constantly insulting his mother, so Julian naturally wishes to defend her from them. On the other hand, French makes it pretty clear that this woman is not exactly going to win the World’s Best Parent of the Year Award anytime soon. She hears that her son ran away from home and his aunt and uncle are kicking him out… but does she shorten her assignment in China a little? She does not, the greedy thing. At one point Julian’s grandmother speculates that maybe she was too busy a parent and should have given his mother more attention at home. Maybe that’s why she’s so flighty. Whatever the reason, Julian’s just a bit too young to resent his mom’s meanderings, but give him a couple years. Full-fledged teenagerhood is just around the corner.
At its core, this book is basically a big eco-friendly morality lesson, and that’s tricky. More than once (and I think French acknowledges this) you find yourself wondering if it’s worth saving the trees if Julian or Robin end up disappointing her dad in some way. It’s strange, but she keeps the plot on such a down-to-earth level that that’s where your mind goes. Generally realistic middle grade novels where kids have to defeat evil corporations who are about to harm the earth (Hoot and the like) don’t spend a lot of time tying the book into real life. French does. When Julian says, “In school we’re always studying the rain forests in Brazil and Africa. And people are always trying to get you to sign petitions to save the rain forest and buy special rain-forest nuts. And we never learned anything about people cutting down redwoods in California,” I think a lot of kids are going to agree with that. We give our students the impression that disasters of this sort happen on other continents and to other people. So to hear that “national forests aren’t like parks. They log there all the time,” that kind of statement will probably surprise as many adults as it does children. The Author’s Note at the back clarifies exactly what in this story is true and what’s happening today. It makes it a little more real, and doesn’t feel preachy in the process either. The book is a screed to some extent, but one you don’t mind reading.
I won’t tell you what it is, but this book manages to pull off a surprise reveal at the end that I’d bet a good 85% of adults reading the book won’t see coming. In many ways this book makes for a natural companion to Jill Wolfson’s middle grade novel Home and Other Big Fat Lies where kids want to protect trees from logging, but understand that the local economy relies on them. In a lot of ways, French’s novel isn’t as complex in terms of the logging economy, but it makes up for that by weaving a true emotional journey full of adventure, friendship, complex morality, trust, lies, and discovery. You believe in this book and you believe in the characters.
On shelves now.
Copy: ARC received from fellow librarians.
First Line: "Julian Carter-Li opened his eyes and immediately knew he was somewhere he’d never woken up before."
Notes on the Cover: I don’t how why it took me so long to notice Mr. Greg Swearingen. His covers, once you begin to notice them, are everywhere (Candle Man, Jemma Hartman: Camper Extraordinaire, The Lost Conspiracy, etc.). Now to my mind, this jacket of Operation Redwood does absolutely everything right. The angle looking up at the kids is unique and unexpected. The kids are accurately depicted (plus I love Julian’s expression). I’m sure that someone could probably find a flaw in the construction of the harness equipment if they really wanted to, but even then I’m not so sure. Swearingen gives one the distinct impression that he does his homework. More than that, it’s a cover that makes a kid want to pick up the book. Just beautifully done all over.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Literate Lives
- Shelf Elf
- Jump Into a Book
- Mrs. V’s Reviews
- Killin’ Time Reading
- A Patchwork of Books
- Flamingnet Young Adult Book Blog
- Mother Daughter Book Club Blog
Other Online Reviews:
- S. Terrell French has a lovely Operation Redwood website with a host of useful sites attached to it.
- Read an excerpt of the book.
- Here’s the discussion and activity guide for teachers.
- And finally, the book appeared in the top ten of the Summer 2009 Kid’s Indie Next List — “Inspired Recommendations for Kids from Indie Booksellers”.