by Amy Hest
Candlewick, 9780763660079, 192pp.
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
This middle grade, multi-voiced view of WWII from a Long Island summer getaway achieves a remarkable sense of contemporary relevance. It employs alternating voices with distinctly narrow points of view as the narrators. Eleven-year-old Julie and her six-years-old sister Martha arrived from the city as summer residents with their writer/father, becoming temporary next-door neighbors to the family of year-round resident Bruno Ben-Eli. With Julie’s single-minded pursuit of proving herself, young Martha in perpetual search of a mom-figure, and Bruno in a persistent state of worry over his brother-gone-to-war, the yearning in each voice resonates with undercurrents of familiar sibling emotions, pre-teen angst, and the tunnel vision of youth.
That title-worthy baby appears early on in this situation, propelling the threesome’s individual and shared actions and the tone of their storytelling until the final (satisfying) resolution. Each short chapter/voice layers in actual information with unreliable content, weaving a mystery and missions that pull readers along by its artful blend of a middle grade novel structure while providing the accessibility and appeal of a well-written verse novel. Wry humor laced throughout offers welcome release at crucial moments.
Several things in this new offering struck me as stand outs. I’m not a New Yorker, but have read quite a few books for kids that are set in “the city”, from classics like Tar Beach and Harriet the Spy to modern marvels like Nana in the City and The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, among many others. In each case the city becomes a character, expressing various neighborhood personalities, whether seen through illustrations or in the multi-sensory qualities that emerge from well-written text. Even so, I’ve encountered very few books for kids that are set on Long Island.
If you have others to suggest, please leave recommendations in the comments.
I’ve often marveled at how very different “the island” seems from “the city”, at least as portrayed in adult books and in movies. This story offers a strong sense of a very particular place and time, so near and yet so far from what many of us view as “New York”. I thoroughly appreciated finding a sense of what life might actually be like in this extension of “the city”.
Also, as the call for presenting diverse characters on the page is finally leading to more books doing just that, a legitimate caveat is to write those diverse characters as simply living life authentically and fully formed, without attaching historical or identity issues to them as if to validate their presence on the page. In this case, Bruno Ben-Eli and his family are never directly labeled as a war-era Jewish-American family, and yet their individual and family lives introduce non-stereotypical characters as fully formed players in these complex relationships.
There’s much to enjoy in this new stateside World War II novel. And it you enjoy this one, try DUKE, the first of Kirby Larson’s Dogs of War series. There’s no dog involved, and the stories are quite distinct, yet the struggles of preteens dealing with timeless troubles and war-centered worries in both invite discussion and comparison.