I don’t consider myself a particularly sentimental person. I don’t really cry at movies (E.T. was supposed to go home, for crying out loud). Television shows leave me high and dry (sorry LOST finale). And books? Considering that I read most of them in quick bits and bites as I travel the New York City subway system, you’re going to be some kinda book to crack so much as a sniffle out of me, let along an out-and-out bawl. So imagine my surprise the other day as I stood on the platform of the F train in Brooklyn, tears merrily streaming down my face as I read Kathi Appelt’s latest. Now I’ll be the first to admit that there were some personal reasons why this book was hitting me as hard as it was. And what’s more, I’m fairly certain that if I was eleven and reading the same book I wouldn’t have cracked so much as a sniffle. That said, there are some authors that can make words twist emotions out of your chest. Who can embarrass you when you board the F train, trying desperately to look like you weren’t just crying over a small, unprepossessing children’s book. Appelt’s one. And her latest is going to win over a whole new generation of young fans.
How can a single day go so wrong? It wasn’t supposed to be a bad day, after all. It was a day that was leading up to a sweet blue moon. But that was before ten-year-old Keeper ruined her guardian Signe’s traditional crab gumbo by setting the crabs free. Before she inadvertently destroyed grandfatherly Mr. Beauchamp’s most prized possessions. Before she was present when Dogie, a man she sees as a kind of father, watched as his hopes of asking Signe to marry him were dashed before his eyes. Now the only way Keeper can think to make amends is to cast off into the sea with just her dog B.D. in tow to find Meggie Marie. Meggie Marie is Keeper’s mama and, she thinks, a mermaid as well. Along the way Keeper gives up the things that mean the most to her, and comes to appreciate the fact that it’s people, not objects, that bind a family together. No matter how bad your day has been.
When Appelt wrote The Underneath it caused strong emotions in her readership. You loved it or you hated it. A couple folks didn’t commit one way or another, but for the bulk of us that was it. Love or hate. Tempers seethed. Sharp words were exchanged. The important thing to remember is that folks were talking about a children’s book. Their hearts got mixed into the discussion. It’s a powerful writer that can wring such passion out of her readership, even if it results in debates over the quality of the book itself. The Underneath was a dark piece of writing hidden behind a kitten-laden cover. It confronted the nature of evil itself with a villain so nasty, reviewers couldn’t even contest his lack of redeeming qualities. Keeper is an experiment in contrasts. Where The Underneath examined hate and bitterness, Keeper is about love, family, and forgiveness.
There is a note at the back of this book in the Acknowledgment section that strikes me as just as important as any word in the text itself. Writes Ms. Appelt of one Diane Linn, “She lovingly cast her knowledge of tides and currents and stingrays my way, and she asked me to consider heartbreak over anger.” Heartbreak over anger. The very root of why Keeper goes traipsing out into the sea in a boat with only a dog by her side. Any book, heck most books, would have sent Keeper into that boat in the midst of a snit. Kids understand snits. They’re experts in `em. But while a snit may help your plot along, it isn’t as emotionally rewarding as good old-fashioned guilt. Keeper goes into that boat not because she’s mad or even because she feels much affection for her absent mother, but because she’s wholly convinced that she’s ruined the lives of everyone she loves and this is the only way to rectify the situation. That packs the necessary emotional wallop the book requires, while also making Keeper a sympathetic character. Well played, Diane Linn.
I said earlier that Keeper stands in contrast to The Underneath and I’ll stand by that, but the two books do have at least two things in common. For one thing, there’s a fair amount of repetition to both texts that will madden a certain kind of reader. It peters out in “Keeper” after a little while, but like The Underneath it may cause a bit of irritation for folks who don’t enjoy the cadences. Second, Ms. Appelt isn’t afraid to take the point of view and toss it like a ball between her characters. For the most part, it’s Keeper’s eyes we see the world through, but around page eleven things change. Suddenly we’re hearing Signe’s story from her perspective. Then later it’s Dogie, Mr. Beauchamp, a seagull, and the dogs. Such an effect should be jarring to the reader. Switch your focus too much and where do your loyalties lie as a reader? I suppose that’s the point, though. Your loyalties lie with everyone. This is a family’s story, in a sense. As such, you need all their perspectives. And except for a brief hiccup I experienced on page twelve, none of these changes to the p.o.v. struck me as anything but necessary to the book’s storytelling.
In terms of the illustrator, I had to look up August Hall to see who the heck he was. The name was familiar but wasn’t ringing any bells in my brain loudly enough to place him. A quick glance at his website and I see that he’s an animator (a popular occupation to begin in if you’re going to be a children’s book illustrator these days). He’s done covers to books like The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood and Antonio S. and the Mysterious Theodore Guzman. Apparently he even made his own picture book (Song and Juniper) back in the day. Still and all, all those books had a kind of cartoony quality to them. Keeper taps far more into Mr. Hall’s ability to get at the core of a moment. Keeper’s hand dangling into the current of the water, the porte-bonheur dangling about her neck. Or the image of the night blooming cyrus, crushed and broken on the ground. It was Hall’s image of an 18-year-old Signe holding three-year-old Keeper in her arms in the sea, her face full of fury, that really tripped the switch on the old tear ducts, I’ll admit it. And how interesting that he made Dogie black. The text says that he has dreadlocks, but I don’t remember it specifying an ethnicity for him necessarily.
Which brings us to Ms. Appelt’s brave choices in this book. There are two love stories in this book and both of them inadequately represented in the world of children’s literature. I personally believe that Ms. Appelt always saw Dogie as African-American and for once it’s nice that a person’s ethnicity isn’t given to be white if it’s not mentioned in the text. In literature for children, teens, and adults, if race isn’t mentioned then inevitably you’re supposed to envision a character as white. Makes no sense. No sense at all. So August’s illustrations provide part of the story, a story that consists of a white woman and a black man deeply in love. Even more interesting to me, though, is the tale of Mr. Beauchamp. We hear his tragic story in bits in pieces. How at the age of 14 he fell in love with a boy named Jack, who loved him too. How Jack’s secret broke the two apart, but over the course of some seventy odd years they never stopped loving one another. How that is the love Mr. Beauchamp yearns for with every new blue moon. Says the book, “Henri had never seen anyone like him, never seen a face as beautiful as his.” Oh me, oh my, it’s wonderful to see such a tale told in a middle grade children’s novel. And boy oh boy, are some unsuspecting adults gonna get themselves a bit of a shock when they find out!
How do you sell this to kids? You’ve a world of options before you. You can sell the book as a mystery. After all, the whole story is leading up to the discovery of what actually happened to Keeper’s mother (happily my she-drowned-in-the-ocean theory was wrongdy wrong wrong wrong). You can sell the book as a true mermaid tale, since Keeper systematically names all the different kinds of mermaid creatures different cultures have come up with around the world. You can sell it as an adventure story, with a girl battling nature itself on the seas (whether she expected to do so or not). And you can sell it as an animal lover story. Spoiler Alert: Unlike The Underneath not a single critter kicks it in this tale. Not even the crabs that might or might not have deserved it.
The fact of the matter is, it’s a book that works for all sorts of folks for all sorts of different reasons. I always get a little wary when a bunch of folks like a new book and start recommending it to me. I worry that their opinions will raise my expectations too high and then I’m bound to be disappointed. That said, I can’t help but agree with anyone and everyone who has raved about this. It’s got kid appeal, amazing writing and storytelling, and a friggin’ merman. Consider it a story worthy of the hype and one that’s gonna win itself a whole new crew of Kathi Appelt fans. Plus it made me cry.
On shelves now.
Source: Publisher sent hardcover copy for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Abby (the) Librarian
- The Reading Zone
- The Crowded Leaf
- In Bed With Books
- Good Books & Good Wine
- Dogberry Pages
- Michelle’s Masterful Musings
- Reading Nook
- Just Bookin’ Around
- I Just Wanna Sit Here and Read
- Lyndale Press
- Flamingnet Young Adult Book Blog
- Novels Now
Other Online Reviews: Richie’s Picks
- Browse inside the book here.
- Go here to hear an excerpt from the audiobook.
- A fun compare and contrast of this cover with one of the adult variety.
- For a good time you can follow Ms. Appelt’s school tour for Keeper on her blog. Some of the best videos from that tour are visible here and here.
- Here’s the trailer for the book itself.
- And this interview was created by Simon & Schuster.
- And now, Kathi Appelt answers questions about the book itself: