|The Thing About Luck
by Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
|The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathy Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Sugar and wheat: two staples of the American diet; two unlikely subjects for children’s books. And yet sugar and wheat, or sugar versus wheat, is one way to think about the battle between Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp and Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck.
At this point, it is traditional for judges to offer a few words about the folly of comparing books. How, after all, can one compare a work of fantasy (like Scouts) to one of contemporary realism (like Luck)? A quiet, coming-of-age tale (like Luck) to a humorous, talking-animal yarn (like Scouts)? An omniscient storyteller (Scouts) to a first-person narrator (Luck)?
But let’s be honest: as critical readers, we do. And I’m going to be bold enough, judgey enough, to suggest that there is a universal metric. It’s called the punch in the gut. The punch can come from reading a description of something you understand, deeply, but had never quite put into words; it can come from strands of a plot coming together in a way that seems both surprising and inevitable; it can come from a moment of wonder or laughter—the mouth wide open, that is the natural state of childhood and of love. Tastes are subjective, books as different as the people who write them. But as years pass, there are books we forget and books that leave the indelible mark of the gut punch, whether they’re about talking spiders or girls left to fend for themselves on abandoned islands or boys being raised by graveyards.
Which brings us back to sugar versus wheat. Which would you pick first? Yeah, me too—sugar. Scouts, set in Texas, interweaves the stories of the animals of the Sugar Man Swamp—namely the raccoon brothers and eponymous scouts, Bingo and J’miah—with the story of the swamp’s human caretakers—namely 12-year old Chap Brayburn who recently lost his beloved grandfather, Audie. As the swamp comes under threat, the human and animal stories clarify each other and intertwine, but, in a satisfying way, never completely merge.
Appelt’s brand of storytelling—with its big ‘ole voice talking right at you and alternating characters and plot strands—is becoming a lost art and with reason. It’s hard to do well. The book’s folksy voice, the type you want to read aloud, goes a long way toward holding together a bursting-at-the-seams story, which manages to work in everything from the history of the Good Lord Bird to the DeSoto automobile to muscovado sugar. Appelt particularly shines when describing animals–both as a naturalist and a humorist. Just take her description of Sweetums, Chap’s cat, after Chap mistakes the creature’s anxiety over an impending environmental threat for fear of a thunderstorm:
Hmmph! Is there anything worse to a cat than being ridiculed? We think not. Sweetums jumped out of Chap’s arms and headed for the bedroom, where he dodged underneath the bed and started grooming himself.
As that first person plural demonstrates, Appelt never leaves the reader guessing how to feel about a character. There are heroes to root for. There are villains, both human and animal, to hiss and boo. The moral universe of Scouts is as simple and comforting as the sugar pies that play a pivotal role in the plot. But this is not a criticism: there needs to be plenty of space on library shelves for stories that reinforce children’s innate sense of morality and justice–especially the youngest readers’.
But a slightly older reader can appreciate a more complex carbohydrate, which brings us to wheat. Luck, set in the agricultural belt of the Midwest, is the story of twelve-year old Summer and the harvest season she spends on the road with her grandparents and younger brother while her parents tend to elderly relatives in Japan. Compared to the sugar-rush of Scouts, Luck is as quiet and mundane as the fields of grain at the center of it. Summer and her prickly grandmother Obaachan fight; Summer falls (briefly) in love; Summer worries about her little brother’s inability to make friends. Not much happens and yet—in an extraordinary feat of capturing the small moments in which we grow up—everything happens. Summer comes to terms with the complexity of the people who love her and takes a risk that allows her to glimpse her adult self.
Luck is filled with nearly as much informative minutiae as Scouts although most of it revolves around a single subject: harvesting wheat. I never thought I would find the mechanics of combines so captivating or the timing of a harvest so full of dramatic tension but Kadohata draws us into chores and routines that paint a world. (In this way, Luck reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which I loved as a kid for their depiction of farm work and its trials and rhythms.)
But what Kadohata does most masterfully of all is bring to life the people who occupy this world. In an age in which we tend to pathologize unusual children, Kadohata’s portrait of Summer’s socially-challenged younger brother Jaz captures his unique range of gifts and deficits rather than resorting to an easy label. Anyone who has grown up in an immigrant family will recognize Jiichan, Summer’s grandfather, with his tireless work ethic and philosophical appreciation for stories and life. But the most extraordinary character of all is Obaachan, Summer’s grandmother. A traditionalist, Obaachan believes in arranged marriage and the healing powers of Japanese salty plums, but loves America’s Funniest Home Videos and Bruce Springsteen. She constantly shoots off zingers at Summer’s expense (“You look like Yoko Ono, 1969,” she tells her on a particularly bad hair day) but quietly sacrifices herself for her family at every turn, leaving her granddaughter puzzled as to who she really is. As Summer explains, “It seemed like there were two Obaachans—the good one and the bad one.”
Luck is a more complex story than Scouts. But that’s not why it’s my winner. A book must—more than anything else–make you care about its characters, be they real or fantastical, funny or serious, good or bad or both. Kadohata has drawn Summer and her family in such emotionally rich detail that I found myself racing through the story just to find out what happened to them. By contrast, while Appelt’s animal characters leapt off the page, for me, her human characters lay flatter. As a result, while I enjoyed the story, I wasn’t turning the pages with the same urgency. And when I got to the end, I didn’t feel the same gut punch that I felt when I read the following passage (don’t worry, no spoilers here). It takes place—appropriately enough for this battle’s final note–in a field of wheat:
“Thunder, help me. I’m scared,” I said, looking at him. He lifted his head curiously, then sat up and placed a paw on my leg.
I suddenly burst into sobs, and the next thing I knew, I wasn’t sobbing because I was scared, but because my grandparents worked so hard and because Jaz couldn’t make a friend at school and because I knew how desperately my parents wished for their own business, and I doubted they would ever get that wish.
I squeezed onto the floor and hugged Thunder to me. As I hugged him something unfamiliar welled up inside me. Maybe it was courage. I mean, this was my world, the black sky and the stars and the wheat. I knew this world backward and forward and upside down. I got back into my seat and looked around at the wheat. Something started to happen: The dust of my personality started to settle and my fear left me.
These two books really could not have been more different, and yet somehow opposites in this match did attract and made for a surprisingly interesting match. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was quite evidently a children’s book from start to finish, while The Thing About Luck could be enjoyed by a broad variety of ages, which is what makes it the victor of this match in my book. I strongly agree with Ms. Marsh in that for me, I have to really fall in love with the characters of a book to love the book itself. However, the strength and hilarity of Bingo and J’miah was enough for me to overlook the weak, secondary human characters. From a glance, the storyline of The Thing About Luck may seem a bit simpler than the action packed, fantastical adventure of two raccoons on a mission to save the swamp. But if one were to delve a bit deeper into the world of Summer, Jaz, and their two crazy, love able grandparents, they would find something much more interesting entirely. They would find a truly amazing story about a young girl trying to find herself while simultaneously helping her family survive another season, and it’s a story that every reader that has been a teenager can resonate with. Emphasis on the teenager, as I believe that anyone who has not yet experienced a crisis of identity will be unable to appreciate the novel to its fullest.
– Kid Commentator GI
Ms. Marsh, who wrote last year’s contender Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, perfectly captures the magic of The Thing About Luck. In the wheat fields, “Not much happens and yet—in an extraordinary feat of capturing the small moments in which we grow up—everything happens.” I did love Appelt’s sugar pies, but Kadohata’s wheat was richer and fuller; I, too, really got that “gut punch.” (I actually think the characters in True Blue Scouts were meaningful, if clear-cut, but Obaa-chan was definitely masterfully done.) That’s why I want Luck to win the battle. But, as I said yesterday, we have four distinguished contenders, and the Undead Book will throw a wrench into the mix. Predictions? There’s still hope for my dream final, The Thing About Luck, Rose Under Fire (somehow beat Eleanor & Park!), and I’m still undecided in the first match. Also, a nod to Ms. Marsh: sugar vs. wheat! I think apples and oranges is getting a bit old.
– Kid Commentator RGN