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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Thing About Luck

kadohata1 196x300 The Thing About LuckKouun  is “good luck” in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it.  We were cursed with bad luck.  Bad luck chased us around, pointing her bony finger.  We got seven flat tires in six weeks.  I got malaria, one of fifteen hundred cases in the United States that year.  And my grandmother’s spine started causing her excruciating pain.

Furthermore, random bad smells emanated from we knew not where.  And my brother, Jaz, became cursed with invisibility.  Nobody noticed him except us.  His best friend had moved away, and he did not know a single boy to hang around with.  Even our cousins looked the other way when they saw him at our annual Christmas party.  They didn’t even seem to be snubbing my brother, they just didn’t see him.

The thing about luck is that it’s like a fever.  You can take fever meds and lie in bed and drink chicken broth and sleep seventeen hours in a row, but basically your fever will break when it wants to break.

Nina often talks about Newbery books being recognizable even from the first page, and this book certainly fits the bill.  Character, style, and theme are abundantly evident from these first paragraphs.  If P.S. BE ELEVEN is Nina’s early favorite, then I’d have to rank THE THING ABOUT LUCK as mine.  I’m still not convinced that it’s head and shoulders above the other contenders, but it’s at least as good–and it’s the one that I enjoyed the most (with THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP coming in a close second).

THE THING ABOUT LUCK made the NBA longlist and I expect it to advance as a finalist–and possibly win the whole thing.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of KIRA-KIRA, but I’m definitely rooting for Newbery love for this one. 

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. DaNae says:

    Of the three books I felt to be overly theme centered this is the one that sunk in the most for me. HOKEY POKEY and THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING being the others, both of which failed to make me care. THE THING ABOUT LUCK has resonated beyond the initial reading more than any other book so far. The setting is my pick for strongest of the year. It showed a part of our country and culture that I had never once paused to wonder about. Kadohata made the urgency of weather in this community palpable. The characters were genuine and unexpected, most especially Obaachan. Summer’s POV felt authentic for her age.

    At first I was frustrated with the quiet way the book ended but upon reflection it had done everything it set out to do. Summer’s arc was successful and the reader was now obliged to walk away and let these people finish out their season and their lives.

  2. Sondy says:

    I did love the characters in this book. DaNae’s “quiet way it ended” was for me “it petered out.” At the end I wasn’t terribly satisfied with the plot.

  3. Alys says:

    I loved the characters, which I thought was the book’s strongest feature. I loved the relationship between Summer and her grandmother especially, and even more I loved that there was never an over-the-top scene where it is made abundantly clear that the grandmother really does love her, despite harping on her constantly. Summer comes to realize that she’s never going to get a clear signal on that front, and that’s just the way life is sometimes. That’s very realistic.

    There was a bit too much info-dumping about wheat and harvesting. I can’t quite decide whether that information was necessary so that I could understand everything that was going on and its context, or whether it was essentially extraneous to the core story.

    The obsession with mosquitoes also got tiring after awhile. It was an interesting quirk at first, but then it was annoying. It’s difficult to notice a mosquito biting you, so it’s different than if it had been a dog attack or something like that, with ptsd. I did like that having malaria earlier in the year gave her a different perspective on things, making her more self-aware in a realistic manner.

    I did not feel like the book petered out. Summer had her triumph driving the combine, and then some thoughtful comments on her world before continuing on with her life.

    I did somewhat question whether Summer would have been able and realistically had the knowledge, to run the combine. But I also know nothing at all about farm culture or “wheatie” culture. Anyone with more information willing to enlighten me whether you’d teach an eleven year old how to drive one (she’d learned the previous year) or whether if, having done it once or twice with support, you’d be able to remember enough to do it without any prompting a year later?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I can’t speak for Summer, but when I lived in Idaho you could get a driver’s license at age 14 (mostly so that you could drive the farm equipment like tractors), but sometimes you’d see kids driving on private property as young as 12. I’m not saying this is the same as driving a wheat combine, but it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possiblity to me.

      • Haven’t read the book yet, but I did go to college with kids who drove combine. It’s not hard to drive one, but it can be dangerous work in some circumstances. Most of the time it’s mind-numbingly boring and blistering hot. The reason kids don’t drive combine often is simply because they are incredibly expensive machines. A new one probably costs the same as my house. So it would be pretty shocking to let an 11 year old run a combine, but in dire circumstances with some prior training I think a farm kid would handle it with aplomb.

    • “There was a bit too much info-dumping about wheat and harvesting.”

      Yes. Yes. This ruined the book for me, despite outstanding characters, setting, and writing style.

      • Alys says:

        I like your comment that it was entirely in character for Summer to tell us everything about something she cares about (she info-dumps about mosquitoes too). I thought the information was mildly interesting, but was worried that it distracted from the story, rather than adding to it in a necessary way. If I think of it as revealing a facet of Summer’s personality, I’m much more comfortable with it.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I never felt like the plot petered out, but I’ll admit that I was under the spell of the book. It was episodic and it ended when the summer harvest did. Didn’t, say, ONE CRAZY SUMMER do the same thing? And P.S BE ELEVEN, too . . .

    • DaNae says:

      It didn’t end when the summer did, instead after Summer managed to help with that one harvest. They still had most of the summer to go (too many summers). I think I was expecting more to be resolved, but in the end enough was for me, and, I would argue, for the theme of the book.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        P.S. BE ELEVEN doesn’t end with the school year (a more logical ending place), but “arbitrarily” after Valentines Day (if I’m remembering correctly–which obviously I wasn’t with THE THING ABOUT LUCK). I didn’t have a problem with the way either book ended.

    • Amanda says:

      I was pleasantly frustrated by the ending, because I found that I wanted to see how the rest of the summer played out for these characters. How long does Summer continue to drive nights? Are they able to finish out the summer? What happens when they move on from Oklahoma and Jaz must leave his friend? In my mind, my eagerness to know more about these characters speaks to the strength of the characterization and the book overall.

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    I think this book is a great example of how content affects our enjoyment but should not affect the level of distinction. Let’s compare (as Jonathan does) ONE CRAZY SUMMER and THE THING ABOUT LUCK. Both books take place during a summer. While OCS occurs in a time and place that many of us find inherently interesting (late 60s SF), TTAL takes place in a time and place (modern migrant harvesters) that most of us do not find very interesting. We probably enjoy or do not notice “info dumps” about black panther day camps in San Francisco because it is fascinating, but many of us might find harvesting procedures about as interesting as say Wilder’s descriptions of Pa building a door or set of hinges out in the prairie.
    The great thing about the Newbery criteria is that they do not allow our personal interests to invade the discussion. We can’t say “this is an important time or topic or theme is important for kids to read and discover”. We can only judge how well a given theme or concept is interpreted. The way I read this is that the newbery committee really can’t judge a book on what it is about, but instead on how well excellently the book executes the elements in the criteria.

    • DaNae says:

      I may be the only one on the planet who found the harvesting info fascinating. It didn’t feel info-dumpy to me. However, I don’t expect my student to be quite as enthralled as I.

      • Margaret says:

        You’re not the only one, DaNae. I was also fascinated, and furthermore Summer seems to me like exactly the kind of person who’s going to give you every last detail about anything that’s so close to her, so it made sense to me that all that harvesting information was there.

        As a disclaimer, however, I pretty much always enjoy so-called “info dumps,” and always have.

      • Amanda says:

        I also really enjoyed the harvesting information, and I agree that giving all the details of the harvest fit with Summer’s character. I was much more put off by the recap at the beginning of P.S. BE ELEVEN than at the explanations in THE THING ABOUT LUCK.

    • Brandy says:

      “but many of us might find harvesting procedures about as interesting as say Wilder’s descriptions of Pa building a door or set of hinges out in the prairie.”

      Yep. This is why I ended up putting it aside. It wasn’t the only reason, but a major factor. (I may come back to it and try again if I have time, which I probably won’t since I’m a first round Cybils judge for Spec Fiction so that’s pretty much all I’ll be reading after next week.)

      I do like your main point though Eric, which is why I keep saying I’m open to being convinced on so many books that were not my particular cup of tea this year. I HATED Hokey Pokey, but get the arguments. Even in the 80 pages of this I read, I can see the arguments for distinction.

      • Sondy says:

        Brandy! So excited you’re on Cybils! If I knew, I would have probably asked for 1st round again…. As it is, I’m looking forward to what you send on to 2nd round!

  6. Sondy says:

    I did find the harvest info interesting. But the subplot with the boy sure didn’t have much to it. And her running the harvester was exciting, but are they going to make it through the summer?

    • DaNae says:

      I thought the thing wit the boy was right on the money as far as reality goes, Not of course as far as traditional romantic plots go. I liked it for that. I did worry about what the rest of the summer would hold, but told myself that is not what the book was about. It was about Summer making her own luck. So to that end I felt the family was in solid hands.

      • Martha says:

        I agree, DaNae–the crush subplot seemed TOTALLY realistic. And I thought the author made it very clear from the beginning that the arc she was interested in following wasn’t a chronological one but an internal one, that of Summer’s post-malaria emotional recovery.
        Something I really appreciated in this novel was its humor, which wasn’t a huge feature in Kadahota’s previous books (that I can remember). She’s really funny! Also very good at capturing the essence of relationships, especially between Summer and her grandparents and between her grandmother and grandfather.

    • Alys says:

      I wasn’t worried about them making it through the summer because while they were only just barely holding on, they were holding on. What threw a wrench into the works was Jiichan getting sick. Once he recovered from the flu, things could return to normal.

      One thing I thought was interesting was the part where Summer is crying for a whole bunch of reasons, and one of them was that her parents want to own their own business and probably never will be able to do that. It’s a realistic assessment, but not one you generally see.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The humor won me over, too. Obachaan is the best character this year!

  8. Sondy says:

    I should add that The Thing About Luck is my favorite of the books you’ve discussed so far… Strongest in the other areas than plot, though. Yes, I’ll cast my vote for Obachaan as the best character of the year, too!

    • DaNae says:

      I will cast mine too, as soon as I get up off the side of the road. The scene where she kept making Summer change beds – hilarious.

  9. Amanda says:

    At our staff Newbery discussion, someone made a really great point. The harvesting “theme” might be everywhere, but where is the luck? It bookends the story, but is it really present throughout? To be honest, I was enjoying the family relationships and the harvesting lifestyle so much that I entirely forgot to question the luck in the THE THING ABOUT LUCK.

    Did I just miss it? Will I see more luck on a reread?

    • I just finished this last night and liked it very much for the various reasons brought up already. I do think it has a rather quiet start and that caused me to put it down a few months back before I got far. I’m very glad that this discussion got me to return and give it another shot.

      It felt somehow a slice of life story, a point in time, vividly evoked. And interestingly, one of the themes seems to me to be the same as HOKEY POKEY and DOLL BONES, growing up. That is where, I think that dalliance of the Parker boy fits. Aren’t the main characters in all three books the same age, more or less? All are trying to figure things out at this pivotal age.

      I’ve been thinking about the question Amanda raised about luck. Seems that the book is about bad luck: Summer’s malaria, Jaz’s head banging and accompanying condition, the grandparents’ ailments, the coming rain, Thunder getting three chickens, Mick’s lost love, etc etc. And then about prevailing in spite of it. No?

      Also about the harvesting info. There was something of almost of a fever dream about it toward the end, equivalent to Summer’s when she was sick with malaria.(FYI: I had a bad bout of malaria that put me in the hospital long ago so I know of what she writes.) Worked for me.

  10. Mark Flowers says:

    Characterization, for sure. Not just Obaachan, but Jiichan and Summer too. Even Mr. Parker was strongly characterized. And I’m surprised no one has mentioned Jaz yet. Are we gun-shy after the autism discussion over on Navigating Early? I haven’t read NE, but I’d be interested to hear comparisons between the treatments. Jaz wasn’t specifically identified as Autistic/Asperger’s, but he certainly seemed to display a lot of the common traits, and I found the characterization of him very deft and touching–especially his friendship with the unnamed boy near the end, but really all the way through he was a fascinating counterpoint to Summer’s way of thinking about things.

    I definitely agree with DaNae about setting – such a strong sense of place and time. Personally, I found the information about harvesting (I wouldn’t call it info-dumping) did much to support that sense of setting.

    Style, for sure – Kadohata is a pro. And I’m OK with a fairly pedestrian plot, since that was clearly not the focus of the book.

    But I don’t see much in the theme category. Was luck really supposed to be part of it? I guess I see what Monica is saying, but isn’t that kind of bad luck the theme of every single book in which obstacles are put in the way of the protagonists? How did this book *treat* luck? Did it have anything to say about it? Or was the theme more just about coming of age and we’re being led astray by a poorly chosen title? Not sure. Maybe it doesn’t matter, if the characters, style, and setting are enough to set it apart, which they might just be.

  11. Sheila Welch says:

    I love KIRA KIRA and this novel also. Summer is such an honest narrator, telling us about her world with an effort to give us the truth even as she realizes that life is very complicated. For me, her use of luck as an opener and as a theme (it does come up as the story progresses) was Summer’s way of helping introduce her family and the arbitrary way life’s unpredictable problems can fall in one’s path. The thread that tied the whole book together for me was Summer’s struggle to have her personality “settled.” She is already an incredible kid, but she has doubts and thinks about her own weaknesses even as she chooses to do the right thing(s). She holds onto Jaz, when he has his head-banging episodes; she follows her grandmother’s orders and directions; she tells the truth to the farmer; she realizes that she might be tempted to shake someone off a tree limb — but she would not do it. During that period of her life, she finds that she can deal with “bad luck” by doing what must be done. She drives the combine even though she’s terrified, She pays the farmer way more than necessary for his chickens. And she stands up for herself AND her family when she finds the inner strength to speak up to the farmer’s son. Sad as she knows life can be, Summer also knows that her family will always be there for her . . . and she will be there for them. Lucky kid!

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