Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: Savvy by Ingrid Law

As a librarian, I feel I should be more aware of Newbery Honor books, so I picked up Savvy by Ingrid Law. Forget Hogwart's and everything you know about magic-meets-coming of age stories; Savvy is different because it's an Americana-flavored tall tale in the manner of Paul Bunyan, NOT a story of wizardry set in a European castle. Instead of meeting giants, warlocks, and dragons, readers will meet a controlling preacher's wife, a shambling Bible salesman, and a down-on-her-luck diner waitress. Expect to go on a road trip in a pink schoolbus, play pranks in a cheap motel, and meet the arch-nemesis in a trailer park.

But what is the story
about? The members of the Beaumont family first experience their magical power, or savvy, on their thirteenth birthdays. Each person's power is unique: Rocket generates electricity, Fish's emotions control the weather (don't make him mad!), and Grandma captured radio waves out of the air and kept songs in Mason jars. A new savvy can be troublesome, and each young Beaumont must learn to scumble--or control--his or her savvy.

Right before Mibs' 13th birthday, her father is in a terrible accident. He goes into a coma and is hospitalized in the nearby town of Salina. A misunderstanding causes Mibs to think her savvy can help people wake up, so she stows away on a bus bound for Salina. Complications arise when her two brothers and the local preacher's kids come with her. Mibs' savvy isn't what she expected. The cute preacher's son has a huge crush on her. And the bus isn't bound directly for Salina. Oops!

In case the Newbery award didn't tip you off, this is a children's book, but it's an unusually engaging children's book. The characters are unique and memorable, and Americana-flavored settings are vividly described. Despite its fantastic elements, the story feels real. My only complaint is that the folksy tall-tale language is sometimes annoying, and it often sounds 
too juvenile, even for a children's book. Tall tales were usually told out loud, and onomatopoeias and assonance often make oral storytelling more engaging. But when the characters "flop-flap down the hall" instead of walk, and voices run "higgledy-piggledy" through Mibs' head, and everything is "itty-bitty" rather than small, it becomes grating. But I'm not the book's target audience, so take this with a grain of salt.

Thematically, I like that Mibs doesn't run
away from her family to find herself and grow up. I think running away is a tired, maladaptive, unhealthy theme. Sure, it's easy to redefine oneself when you're outside your comfort zone and surrounded by people you've just met. But can those changes be maintained upon returning home? And isn't it a bad message, to tell kids they need to break ties with the people who care about them if they ever want to change or grow? Instead, Mibs goes on a journey to be reunited with her parents. In the course of that journey, she finds strength, learns to scumble her savvy, and gets practice setting healthy boundaries. But this isn't another tired story about rejecting friends and family to find oneself, and I like that.

This was a fun little book, and I'd recommend it for reading out loud to older children, or to enjoy while travelling or doing something else that doesn't allow you to give your full attention to a book. Have you read any good Newbery Honor books? I'd like to read a few more. You know... for professional reasons! 

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P.S. All trolls will be fed to the bookworms.