They say to write what you know. We’ve all heard that line. It’s bounced about countless writing groups. But there’s an unspoken rule amongst children that’s as pervasive as it is harmful: Read what you know. If you’re a soccer fan, only read soccer books. If you like ballet, get a whole bunch of ballet books. Librarians, teachers, and parents can spend countless hours fighting against the sometimes innate understanding some children have acquired that dictates that they can’t read about anything outside of the realm of their own (limited) experience. This might be understandable if you were dealing with a writer that played by his or her own rules and failed to let child readers in on the fun, but it’s absolutely ridiculous when you’re dealing with a book like Kate Messner’s Sugar and Ice. Authors that commit to creating worlds that are outside the experience of your average everyday kid and yet are accessible enough for ALL children to enjoy are rare, but they’re out there. Sugar and Ice is out there. And you don’t have to be a fan of ice skating, Fibonacci, beekeeping, or sugar tapping to enjoy it (though it probably wouldn’t hurt if you were).
For Claire Boucher life is pretty simple. Practice skating on the local cow pond. Help out at the small ice skating rink when possible. And for fun, do a segment during the local competition’s Maple Festival. All that changes when Claire’s routine for fun catches the eye of big-time muckety muck trainer Andrei Groshev. Groshev has a deal for Claire. He’s offering her a scholarship to train with other students like herself for huge ice skating competitions. In return, Claire will have to sacrifice the life she’s always known. Not a natural competitor, Claire accepts then almost immediately wonders what she’s gotten herself into. Most of the kids are nice, but some are jealous of her talent. She hardly has time to do schoolwork as well as training, and worst of all someone is sabotaging her equipment and confidence. In the end, Claire needs to determine if she’s got what it takes to be a serious contender, or if she’s just gonna go back to her cow pond and forget any of this ever happened.
Let’s go back to what I was saying earlier about authors who commit to distinct, one-of-a-kind worlds. In the case of this particular book, Ms. Messner has brought the world of competitive ice skating to real and vibrant life. I think a lot of kids have shared in the experience of watching ice skaters during the Olympics leap, and often fall, in their attempts to nab the gold. There’s a very real drama there. But even if you’re dealing with a child who has only the haziest understand of ice skating, Claire’s life is going to ring true for them. That’s because Ms. Messner commits to the bit. She’s going to use emotional situations that everyone can relate to and then work in real facts about skating in the gaps. The result is that even though I don’t know a triple lutz from a double axel, I can follow this story. The result is that the reader gets the same experience they would have if they read something like Jane Smiley’s The Georges and the Jewels about horse training. You don’t have to know, or even be interested in, the material when things start. What’s important is that the author takes a hold of your heart from the beginning and doesn’t let go. Messner does this beautifully.
Such writing usually begins with a main character you can believe in. Claire Boucher’s voice is written in the first person throughout this story. Claire is the kind of girl who doesn’t like professional competition, so right there Messner had the goal of keeping Claire from sounding whiny. This is a difficult thing to do. If your protagonist has to overcome an obstacle and they keep talking about it, the danger is that your readership is going to get fed up with her and throw the book against a wall. Fortunately for everyone, Ms. Messner makes you really like Claire long before her insecurities take hold. She even works in little details about Claire that affect your view of her, like the fact that what really gets our heroine’s blood running hot is skating to the Indiana Jones theme song. I appreciate the non-girlyness of that choice. It’s a kickin’ sequence and you feel a little jolt of hope after it’s done.
As I read the story, I was fascinated to find that I expected everything to have been wrapped up on page 186. This is partly because I didn’t really realize that the book is part journey, part mystery. Booktalkers of this title might want to play up the mystery aspect when selling it to kids. I mean somebody is messing up Claire’s outfits and doing everything possible to keep her from competing. The fact that Claire points the finger at the wrong person for much of this book is just a red herring. The real culprit is far sneakier. I’d love to interview some kid after they read this book to see if any of them guessed the identity of the real bad guy.
Librarians reading the book will appreciate the references to everything from School House Rock to Hattie Big Sky. Kids reading the book will appreciate that the author knows how to speak to more than just ice skating fans. Don’t get me wrong… for fans of ice skating this book is nothing short of a dream come true. If I don’t see a copy of this book in every single ice skater’s gym bag by the end of December I will eat my proverbial hat. But there’s a lot of rich writing at work here, above and beyond the obvious plot elements. It’s got a relatable heroine, three-dimensional villains, a rags to riches element, some convincingly exhausting sequences, and an ending that will probably catch a couple folks by surprise, both in terms of the villain’s reveal and the heroine’s final decision. Publishers like to bandy about the term “strong middle grade” to describe books, but it’s not always accurate. Consider this book, then, a definite contender in the “strong middle grade” ring. A title that remains in your mind long after you’ve put it down.
On shelves December 9th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
- Be sure to check out Kate Messner’s writing advice over at lesleysays.
- She also wrote a nice article about author visits and Skype at School Library Journal entitled An Author in Every Classroom: Kids connecting with authors via Skype. It’s the next best thing to being there.
- Finally, agent Jennifer Laughran discusses what drew her to this book and why she likes it at Mother. Write. (Repeat).