Based on the reminiscences of Varble’s late husband, this young-adult novella describes a 6-year-old boy’s adventures in Simi Valley in the summer of 1934.
Recounting the adventures of Johnny, son of a tenant farmer during the Great Depression, the novella is as much a portrait of Simi Valley between the world wars as it is a portrayal of a boy’s awakening to an adult world. Rich in vivid historical detail—e.g., Johnny is born on March 11, 1928, the day before Francis Mullholland’s Saint Francis Dam fails, drowning hundreds in what remains one of the state’s greatest losses of life—the novella is also a deft sketch of a rural American life that has largely disappeared. Executed with a historian’s eye, Varble draws on research and recollection to vividly evoke Johnny’s family and valley life, including a cavalcade of colorful local figures, from the voluptuous Aunt Belle, to an Okie family fleeing the “black blizzards” of the Dust Bowl (storms which tripled in frequency from 14 in 1932 to 52 in 1934), to Andy, Johnny’s father’s friend who returns from San Quentin after serving time for the murder of his wife. While the characterizations can be overly simple, the details of time and place are often riveting: the harvesting of barley, the lighting of a wood stove, California “car culture” before licenses were commonplace, the hunting of a mountain lion. In prose as simple as a Hemingway story, the novella offers young readers a glimpse of an almost unimaginably unplugged world. Brief chapters keep the book fleet-footed even as they credibly reveal crucial steps to maturity—from curiosity to desire, from loss to altruism. The reader’s awareness of fascism’s rise in Europe—and Johnny’s likely future as a soldier—lends gravity to a tale that might otherwise seem a nostalgic look back at simpler times.
Dramatic skill and rich historical details make for a successful YA book, especially for readers with a particular interest in California.
In this debut middle-grade novel, a lonely boy finds friendship and learns about the magic of human connection.
Defined by the large mole on his lip, 10-year-old Gregory has grown distant from his family. He is friendless and withdrawn. Then one night a strange little creature emerges from Gregory’s mole. It is riding a (quite lovable) cockroach and can change size. This is the Grimbockle. The Grimbockle—one of many Bockles, who, like Palmer Cox’s Brownies, live at the peripheries of human awareness—tends to the exoodles that bind people together. Exoodles are long, transparent, noodlelike threads and are usually invisible. Once Gregory has his eyeballs painted with Carrot Juicy, though, he can see them. He joins the Grimbockle and the roach, traveling the exoodles as if on a high-speed roller coaster. Exoodles wither and die when people don’t look after their relationships. The Grimbockle is trying to repair a particularly sickly exoodle that links a boy to his mother. Can Gregory help—and can he mend the exoodles in his own life? Schubert follows delightedly in the footsteps of Roald Dahl, opening her unfortunate young protagonist’s eyes to a previously unseen world both weird and wondrous (yet for all its outlandish magic, oddly logical). The scenario is one of riotous imagination, while the Grimbockle himself—brought sweetly to life in black-and-white illustrations by Kraft—is a sprightly and good-natured little person, full of the type of singsong infelicities found in Dahl’s beloved nonhuman characters: “Is you ever seeing glimpses of squiggles in the corners of your twinklers but then they is disappearing in a snippety blink?” “ ‘Exoodles!’ shouted the Grimbockle in triumph. ‘Sometimes, hoo-mans is getting so twisty and wound up in extra exoodles that they is feeling gloomy blue and heavy all day long.’ ” The story is perhaps too much of a parable to fully match Dahl’s template; the adventure is safer and the threats less dark. Nonetheless, readers should fall willingly and with thrilled abandon into the fizzy, fanciful world of Gregory and his Grimbockle friend.
A beautifully realized daydream; a fun yet thoughtful exploration of the complexities and possibilities hidden beneath surface appearances.
A lost bunny searches for his mother in this debut picture book.
The youngster is already lost in the beginning of Lakhiani’s version of the time-honored tale of a lost child reuniting witha parent. On a foggy day, a young rabbit finds that he doesn’t recognize where he is. He calls for his mother, but instead of her voice in response, he hears the hum of a bumblebee. The nameless little rabbit asks if the bee knows where his home is, but the bee doesn’t and sends him on to the wise owl, who “sees everything.” As the little rabbit runs through the “eerie” fog toward the owl’s tree, he meets a kind squirrel. “I’ve lost my mother….I am lost and scared,” explains the little rabbit. The squirrel leads the rabbit to the wise owl’s tree, which the rabbit climbs to ask the owl, “[C]an you see where I live?” The fog is too thick for the owl to spot little rabbit’s home, so he gives the little rabbit a snack and invites him to rest. Falling asleep, the little rabbit dreams of his mother but is awakened by the hooting, buzzing and chattering of his three new friends. Looking around, he sees his mother, who embraces him: “I will never again let you out of my sight,” she tells him. The digitized art by Adams, some of which is credited to Thinkstock, is in a cartoon style that clearly delineates the characters but includes a few anthropomorphic details—a graduation cap for the owl, spectacles for the squirrel and only four legs for the bee—that add little value. Since the story centers on the little rabbit failing to recognize where he is, the choice to make the right-hand page of every spread identical is potentially confusing; regardless, it’s repetitious. The text fails in the opposite direction: It doesn’t create the typical patterns that can help toddlers follow the story, build anticipation and learn to chime in—steps on the path to reading alone. Erratic rhythms, changing stanza lengths and rhyme schemes, and awkward syntax undercut attempts to enliven the tale with poetry.
A story with a tried-and-true plot that needs to freshen up its presentation.