There are only two things I require from life: Donuts and good books. Obviously that statement is false, but it sure sounds good. I like donuts. I like good books. And a good book that involves donuts? Cosmic all-encompassing donuts that aren’t afraid to ask the big questions? Even better! Now I’ve followed the career of Linda Urban over the years and the simple fact of the matter is that with each of her books she gets better. Her latest, The Center of Everything follows its predecessors Hound Dog True and A Crooked Kind of Perfect into the familiar realm of quiet thoughtful fiction. A literary work of middle grade to its core, I’m not going to tell you that every kid that reads this book is going to love it, because it simply isn’t true. This is a book for the thinkers and the dreamers. Philosophical kiddos. Smarter than the average bear, Urban’s put her neck out there and written something big in a small package.
Everything hinges on Ruby getting this right. Today, after all, is Bunning Day, the most important day in Bunning, New Hampshire. It’s the day she’ll get up and read her award winning essay in front of everybody. And in that moment she’ll be able to make everything right with her best friend Lucy and her new friend Nero. They’ll forgive her. And that wish she made on her birthday, the one that is destined to come true . . . well, that’s a given, isn’t it? Trouble is, even the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go horribly awry. It’s Bunning Day. Ruby has her notecards in her hands. The parade has begun. Something is going to happen.
Some books are told in the course of a single baseball game (Six Innings). Some in a single day (33 Minutes). This book takes place in the course of a single parade route. It’s a trope that requires a fair amount of potentially confusing flashbacks, which, with any other writer, might be a bit of a problem. But since small town parades are their own little universes in and of themselves, it turns out that Ms. Urban has a lot to work with. In fact, I found that this particular point of view was utterly unique. Perspective, you see, is a very big part of The Center of Everything. I’ve rarely seen a book for kids so willing to switch focus without giving even a hint of whiplash in the process. Much of the book is written entirely in the present tense. Well, not entirely exactly. There is the occasional moment when the book leaps into present tense second-person (which is a trick in and of itself). The reason for this switch becomes apparent when you realize that for much of it Ruby is talking to herself. Thanks to her grief, Ruby suffers a kind of self-imposed disconnect from the world around her. She often equates this with being underwater. “Every action, every movement, took twice as much effort, as if it were happening in slow motion.” The moment of release comes when she laughs for the first time since her grandmother’s death. “Ruby laughs a real out-loud laugh, which is something you can’t do underwater. It requires real oxygen to laugh.”
Then there’s the aforementioned fact that parts of the book allow the minor characters in the parade to strut and fret their page or paragraph upon the stage, and then are heard no more. These glimpses into other people’s brains serves to distinguish the novel from one of those books filled with quirky small town characters. Small town these people are. Quirky? I’d say no. And in seeing them we give Ruby context outside of herself. We don’t have to spend the whole novel inside of her brain. There’s great good to be said of that.
Is there a term for much of what Urban is doing here? I almost want to call it kid-logic, but if I’m going to be honest that’s not quite right. Instead it’s this tricky combination of children’s intelligent observations coupled with superstitions, signs, and urban legends. These observations include things like Ruby’s technique for not getting called on in class. “In third grade she figured out that if you put your hand up in class when everyone else did, you probably wouldn’t get called on, but you also probably wouldn’t get called on when nobody put their hand up either. Teachers mostly picked the kids who never put their hands up . . . ” After that the author has managed to tap into the logical thought process of a kid dealing with illogical emotions, then translating them into kind untruths for the sake of the adults around her. How do you do that as an author? Then there are the urban legends. To my mind, urban legends that originate with children and as close as kids come to creating their own original religions. In fact without mentioning religion in any way, Ruby is trying to give a sense of order to the world, and the way she does that is through legend and superstition. Her moment of clarity comes when everything starts tumbling about her ears. “What if there is no supposed to? What if there is no one way things are meant to be? What if it all is just random and spinny and wild?” We all grapple with these questions sooner or later. This book just gives a nudge in the direction of “sooner”.
The biggest criticism the book has to face at this point in time is the pace. When you pick up a Linda Urban book, you are not going to encounter a car chase or an exploding helicopter or much outside of a human’s head. There’s a lot of internalizing in a Linda Urban book. That’s what drives some folks nutso. Of this book I’ve encountered at least two librarians who found the pace too slow for their liking. One even suggested that perhaps the narrative leap to other characters involved in the parade could have been removed to keep the book shorter. This of a 208-page title. So we can pretty much say with certainty that you shouldn’t hand this book to a reluctant reader or a kid who needs a death-a-minute to keep their eyeballs glued tight. This is a book for a good reader who can appreciate some fairly fine writing.
Literary children’s books are the ones unafraid to take it slow. In this particular case, slow and sad (but not depressing, which is a fine line to walk). They are not to everyone’s taste. Yet it’s no crime to write a book for kids that asks the big questions. Ruby never turns to the reader and says “Is there a God?” or “Why are we here?” but the questions and theories she does devise are part of the greater whole. Framed in a single day between realistic kids and near absent adults, Urban successfully pulls everything together. What a kid gets out of this depends on how much they’re willing to put into it. More thoughtful than most, this one’s a keeper. A book for children with an inclination to think.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Line: “In the beginning, there was a donut.”
Like This? Then Try:
- Mira in the Present Tense by Sita Brahmachari
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
- The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Other Blog Reviews:
- Reading Rumpus
- Fat Girl, Reading
- Nerdy Book Club (includes Core Curriculum applications)
- Secrets & Sharing Soda
- Green Bean Teen Queen
Misc: Read an excerpt here.