Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Clarke’s father left town with a dental hygienist. Raymie is sure that if she wins Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father will come home to her and her mother. In order to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire though, Raymie needs to learn how to twirl a baton and its at her baton twirling lessons where Raymie meets two other girls hoping to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire: whimsical Louisiana Elefante and saboteur Beverly Tapinski. Over the course of the summer, the three girls bond over the sadness in each of their lives.

In my opinion, the best way to talk about RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is to pretend that Kate DiCamillo didn’t write it. That way, bias can be set aside. DiCamillo has a well-earned following. THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE are widely studied in elementary classrooms across the country. She has multiple Newbery Medals and Honors to her name. She’s a talented wordsmith and storyteller. But does that mean RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is any good?

When you discover that you are not the ideal reader for a book, it seems a little unfair to continue reading it with a critical eye. DiCamillo’s fans will undoubtedly adore this book. I can’t say that I did. Maybe it’s because I keep trying to imagine Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in my 5th grade classroom. I can’t imagine them fitting in socially with many other kids. This is why they are drawn to each other. They are equally quirky and desperate. Sure, the friendship they form is sweet, but it’s also clunky and convenient. Their lives are filled with sadness and the resolution of the story brings no real closure to their glum situations. They call themselves the “Three Rancheros,” but I’m not sure if they actually like each other, or if they are just forced to because they have no one else.

This was probably DiCamillo’s point, and if the plot of this story would not have been so thin I could have forgiven the similarly drawn characters, but events transpire for the sake of the story and not in a genuine fashion. I found myself caring for the characters only because they were drawn so sad and not because of their development or depth.

There is no question that DiCamillo is one of the best, but this sad little story of convenient friendship doesn't compare to her other accomplished work.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Wild Robot

I grew up in a small rural town in Iowa. Most of my friends and classmates were farm kids. Outdoor kids. I was not. I was content inside my house, building Legos, playing with action figures, and reading comics and watching movies. As I grew up, my love of the outdoors grew and instilling a love for the outdoors in my children through riding bikes, camping, snowshoeing, you name it, has become important to me. This is why I was drawn to THE WILD ROBOT. It felt as if it was written for me specifically. A blending of my childhood self with my adulthood self. My expectations were high.

When Rozzum Unit 7134 first boots up, she is packed tightly in a crate, washed ashore on a remote island. It doesn’t take her survival instincts, or programming, long to kick in as she notices broken crates and busted robot parts strewn about the beach. She is the lone robot survivor of a cargo ship accident and is stranded on an exotic island with no recollection of who or what she is or how she came to be. In order to survive so that she can function properly, Roz must learn how to be “wild” from the animal inhabitants of the island.  

I enjoyed THE WILD ROBOT, despite it not quite living up to my expectations. With 288 pages divided into 80 chapters (that’s roughly 3 pages per chapter), I was expecting a quick read. It was not a quick read however. I don’t know if it was the plot, or if the short chapters worked against the pacing, but the story dragged quite a bit. I enjoyed the descriptive opening chapters, as Roz was problem-solving her way around surviving the island, and I enjoyed the exciting closing chapters, as the Reco bots were closing in on capturing Roz. The middle of the story, where Roz mothers a small gosling, gave the story some heart, but this is where the pacing of the plot became drawn out and repetitive.

I have read reviews of THE WILD ROBOT that laud the deep questions Brown asks of his young readers. I had a difficult time pinpointing a coherent message though. The opening chapters stand out as Roz attempts and fails multiple times to understand her surroundings and I began to see this nature vs. machine theme take shape. But it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, Roz discovers that her key to surviving the island is in befriending the animals that live there. The animals however, don’t behave like animals. They are very civilized and talk like goofy Disney characters. In order to survive, Roz wants to become “wild” like the animals but the animals she encounters are far from “wild.”

There are some tender moments where Roz learns to take care of a gosling and I could see a message coming through about acceptance and family, but then the final act of the book kicks into gear and violence ensues. The ending is rather unsettling and I’m not sure what Brown was going for. Is he saying it is ok to destroy someone (or something) in order to protect those we love? Pretty heavy for a children’s novel! The lack of a coherent message may result in a somewhat choppy story, but that may only bother adult readers. Kids may ask deep questions around each of these themes Brown touches on and maybe that was his point.

In the end, I did enjoy THE WILD ROBOT. I love Brown's sense of humor and I liked the black and white illustrations of Roz, looking out of place on the island. The sci-fi/adventure/survival blend is right up my alley and I can really see kids digging this book. Readers should check out Brown's blog where he details the process of creating this book and getting it published. Quite the inspiring labor of love.