Children’s librarians can be neatly divided into two categories with relatively little difficulty. Basically, they either love and adore dogs and all things doggie related or they don’t. I don’t. I was never the kid begging her parents for a hound. I did not dream of fluffy golden retriever puppies or watch the Westminster Dog Show on television with undiluted envy. As an adult, I’ve maintained my canine-related neutrality admirably. I don’t dislike dogs, but I don’t obsess over them. So when folks hand me children’s novels that hinge on wanting one, I know right off the bat that I’m not going to be able to relate. Still, I read them because there will be a whole host of children out there who can relate and I need to know if this book will be any good for them. If the book’s going to be dog this, dog that I’m going to have a hard time. Far better to have a story with vibrant characters, unpredictable plotting, and conflict involving (amongst other things) and just a hint of 21st century anti-Semitism. Sure, When Life Gives You O.J. is a dog book in the strictest sense of the term, but I’d go out on a limb and say that there’s stuff here for child readers of all stripes. Not just the dog-obsessed.
That Zelly wants a dog is no secret. That her parents are not inclined to give in to her demands is understood. She begs. They refuse. So when she receives a note in her room one day that makes no sense, she has no idea what she’s getting into. It reads: “KID, SEE ME IMMEDIATELY WHEN YOU GET THIS. DO NOT SPEAK OF THIS TO ANYONE, NOT EVEN YOUR PARENTS OR YOUR BROTHER. ACE. P.S. I HOPE YOU ARE READY FOR THIS.” Ace is Zelly’s grandfather who is now living with her family ever since the death of Zelly’s beloved bubbe (grandmother). He’s a bit nutty and his plan seems to follow suit. Handing his granddaughter an empty orange juice container, Ace tells Zelly that all she has to do is treat it like a dog. You know. Take it for walks, feed it (a disgusting combo of dog food and water), clean up its poop (see: disgusting combo of dog food and water), etc. Of course, Zelly’s parents aren’t on board with this plan, and she has other things on her mind distracting her. There’s the fact that her new friend went away to Bible camp and never wrote her. There’s a new boy who’s Jewish like she is and super friendly. And let’s not forget the bully who would never let Zelly forget it if he saw her walking a wet dog food filled orange juice jug. Things aren’t easy for Zelly and getting a dog appears to be the hardest thing of all. A glossary of Yiddish words appears at the end.
Grandparents in children’s literature appear in a variety of ways, but I think I can safely say that I’ve never encountered anyone quite like Ace before. Sometimes he reminded me of the grandfather in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, but generally speaking Ace is an original. Perl’s smart too. She starts off her book without giving you a clue as to who or what “Ace” really is. All you know is that Zelly has woken up to find a note swearing her to secrecy and attached to an empty orange juice jug on her nightstand. If I were a teacher handing out writing assignments I would have my kids read that first page, take in that information, and then write their predictions as to what the book is going to be about. I bet you’d get a range of genres, with some kids thinking there was an otherworldly connection as others imagine spy novels and secret messages. It’s one heckuva opening and when you actually meet Ace he doesn’t disappoint. That’s where capitalized words (his preferred method of speech) will get you. They’re noticeable.
The book provides an interesting examination of sacrifice. The context considers what kids can do to persuade their parents to give them what they want (not what they need). Consistently throughout this book Zelly is told that she’s not committed enough to her desire to have a dog. She talks the talk but can she walk the walk? Similarly her friend Jeremy knows a little something about giving up the thing you love the most and tries to council Zelly. That’s on the surface. Dig a little deeper, though, and I couldn’t help but think that the book does a pretty fabulous job at showing kids that if you’re willing to appear just a little bit insane, not so much that your parents put you on Seroquel but enough to give them the shivers, as well as dedicated to that insanity, you can conquer the world. Not a message I see in books for kids as often as I’d like.
A fellow librarian once pointed out to me that if you read a lot of contemporary children’s fiction you would fall under the distinct impression that any and all humans of the Jewish persuasion disappeared after WWII. Which is to say, name me a couple chapter books starring contemporary Jewish kids where the whole point of the book ISN’T that they’re Jewish. It can be done but it takes some doing. The only author I’ve run across lately who does it with consistency is Brenda Ferber (Jemma Hartman Camper Extraordinaire, etc.). Perl’s book can now be added to that lamentably short list. Now when Kirkus reviewed this book they pretty much said that it was written for a niche audience. Which is to say, the book incorporates Yiddish words in the text and doesn’t explain them until you reach the glossary at the end. I’m not sure what “niche” Kirkus thinks is going to read that, though, since I suspect that kids who don’t run into Yiddish on a daily basis will have no difficulty whatsoever following the storyline. But even those that do aren’t going to read this book because of that fact either. They’re going to read the book because it involves a girl who lugs her orange juice container behind her like a dog. Which is to say, because it’s funny.
One element in the book did confuse me a bit. Zelly enters into this crazy plan of Ace’s with the full knowledge that her parents aren’t on board. Riddled with doubts, she nonetheless continues to “walk” and “feed” O.J. I’m not sure that I ever had a clear understanding of why this was. Insofar as I could tell her parents give her a pretty clear denial that any of this ridiculousness will lead to pet ownership. She does eventually reach the point I mentioned earlier where the dedication of near insanity tips the scales, but before that I wasn’t sure what it was that kept Zelly going. A minor point.
If I were feeling ambitious I could try to draw some correlation between contemporary Jewish children’s books (Any Which Wall, Julia’s Kitchen, etc.) and themes of fitting in, attacking the impossible with humor, etc. That’s a fitting topic of a thesis and could not receive adequate attention in a mere review. Still, for all that When Life Gives You O.J. seems to be a silly story about a girl lugging an orange juice container around her block, it has the ability to make the reader think big. About familial relations and how we hold the living accountable for not being the idealized dead. About fitting in with the people you thought understood you. About getting what you want at any cost, even the high price of looking ridiculous. Erica Perl has placed a fascinating little title in a seemingly simple package. Top drawer all around.
On shelves now.
Source: Author sent book for review.