American children grow up reading so many good British novels that sometimes it’s hard to conjure up similar books of a Yankee nature. Maybe that’s why I like Barbara O’Connor so much. Fantasy fans are forever searching for the next great American fantasy novel, but I for one am forever on a search for the next great American realistic children’s book. And certainly The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis probably owes more to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than The Railway Children when you read its plot and cadences. Small and unassuming, O’Connor appears to be honing her craft with each book she writes. This latest is simply one of her best.
Boredom comes cheap in Fayette, South Carolina. If Popeye could sell it he’d be a rich boy by now. After all, there’s very little to keep him interested this summer. Living with his grandmother and his dog, life doesn’t really perk up until a Holiday Rambler filled to the brim with a loud, squabbling, exciting family gets stuck in a nearby mud patch. Popeye quickly befriends Elvis, a boy about his age, and the two decide that what they need is a small adventure. It’s simply perfect that such an adventure presents itself to the two when boats made out of Yoo Hoo cartons start sailing down the nearby creek carrying cryptic messages. Who’s sending them? What do they mean? And will the boys be able to solve the mystery before Elvis’s Rambler is removed from the mud at last?
How do you make a book about nothing interesting? It’s sort of the quandary the TV show Seinfeld posed when the characters wanted to make their own television show about nothing. Seinfeld is about as far as you can get from Popeye and Elvis in terms of story and structure, but in both cases they deal with the everyday mundane aspects of our lives. The trick is to stay true to the material and yet still have enough story and character development to make it fun. Maybe Barbara O’Connor has this hidden burning need to write about space monsters and shiny vampires, but somehow I doubt it. At some point in her life she realized that she had a gift. She makes ordinary folks heroes in very human ways.
Ms. O’Connor has other gifts as well, mind you. For example, she is an exemplary example of economy in writing. I’ve always sort of believed that the less words you use, while still staying on point, the better writer you are (which makes these gigantic reviews I write all the more ironic, I guess). If you look at easy readers you realize that folks like Dr. Seuss and Arnold Lobel had a gift. Early chapter books are just as hard, in some ways. You can’t spend pages and pages talking about motivation. Character and personality has to be shown, not told. Here’s a brilliant example, with three characters introduced at once, with not a single word out of place:
"Popeye needed Velma to not crack up because no one else in his family was very good at taking care of things. Not his father, who lived up in Chattanooga and sold smoke-damaged rugs out of the back of a pickup truck. Not his mother, who came and went but never told anybody where she came from or where she went to. And definitely not his uncle Dooley, who lived in a rusty trailer in the backyard and sometimes worked at the meatpacking plant and sometimes sold aluminum siding and sometimes watched TV all day."
She’s the Bailey White of children’s literature. She has a distinctive voice, which is so hard to find sometimes. Read enough children’s books and they all start to run together in your brain. Not O’Connor. Whether she’s defining the term avuncular, describing the interior of the Holiday Rambler ("Beside the booth was a tiny television, strapped to the wall with a bungee cord") or just adding in little human moments ("Elvis punched him in the arm with a knuckle") she just seems to know how to pick and choose her words. When I grow up, I want to write just like Barbara O’Connor.
Which brings me to yet another trademark O’Connorism: class. Her characters are people with real jobs who get by and don’t have the option of just leaving all their troubles behind. Popeye lives with his grandmother and they make do, but it’s in a pretty remote area. The kind of place where a stuck RV is going to be the biggest news going on in a long time. Previous O’Connor novels had similar characters and situations. How to Steal a Dog (one of my favorites) examined homelessness and, to a certain extent, how bad situations cause good people to make bad choices. Greetings from Nowhere (a big hit with the kids’ bookgroup I run) involved motels and the people who both visit and run them. There’s something nice about reading a Barbara O’Connor book and knowing that you’re not going to have to deal with stereotypical tropes like "if this character lives in a trailer park, you know they’re evil" and the like. Her folks don’t have a lot of money. Neither do a lot of folks in the country right now. Makes sense.
Problems with this book? Dunno. I’m usually pretty good at coming up with some kind of an objection to any given title. But maybe too much time has passed between my reading this and my reviewing it. When I look at this book now I sort of view it through the blur of deep affection. It’s got great lines like "Dead dogs live here", great characters portrayed with just the right amount of words, and a plot that’s interesting in a small, simple way. It’s funny not to find something to compare this to, but The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis really is its own unique little beast. An early chapter book that just works. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
Source: Hardcover copy sent by publisher.
Notes on the Cover: Well bless my biscuits and call me Sunday. That’s a Marc Rosenthal cover, that is! The same fellow who wrote Phooey! and Archie and the Pirates. Rosenthal’s always had a way of invoking classic artists and illustrators without ripping them off. Here he has even kind of inadvertently (or maybe it’s on purpose, I don’t know) referenced Herge of Tintin fame. Whatever the case, I like it very much.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup
- Literate Lives
- Book Nut
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- Kirby’s Lane
- Family Book Bag
- Fellow author Sara Lewis Holmes offers some fabulous thoughts on the book and other small adventures here.
- Ms. O’Connor discusses what the photo shoot for a SLJ interview consisted of (and shows her with copious Yoo Hoo boats).
- You can read an excerpt from the book here.
Awards and Distinctions
- School Library Journal Best Books of the Year 2009
- Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year 2009
- New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing 2009
- Here’s the book trailer for the title. Catchy l’il tune.