by Scott Simon
Wonder meets Three Times Lucky in a story of empowerment as a young woman decides to help solve the mystery of multiple suspicious deaths in her group home.
Wall Street Journal – Children’s Books: Gentle Lessons About Dignity and Difference. By Meghan Cox Gurdon
As there are stars in the sky and grains of sand on the beach, so without number are the children’s books devoted to the idea that being “different” is good. Those who depart from the norm not only have value, the argument goes, but probably also possess finer qualities than those who run with the herd. For any young person who has ever felt misjudged or ill at ease— which is everyone, given what it is to grow up—the idea has a satisfying judicial ring to it. Others may deprecate you now, but someday you’ll show them.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but the ubiquity of this idea, the sameness of the assertion in book after book, has the effect of obscuring the real truth: that goodness and dignity really do inhere in all sorts of people, even those who are odd, disconcerting or disfavored. The veteran NPR radio host Scott Simon learned this as a young man while working in a home for people with intellectual disabilities. “I was shaken at first to meet adults who, in many ways, seemed to talk and act a little like children,” he writes at an afterword to “Sunnyside Plaza” (Little, Brown, 192 pages $16.99), a novel that draws on his time in the facility. “But the more I got to know the residents, the less I saw them as people with mental challenges or disabilities, but real people who laughed, worried, loved, and made real lives in the world.”
Mr. Simon’s respect and affection appear on every page of this gentle mystery narrated by Sally Miyake, a 19-year-old resident of a group home. Sally can’t read, but she has an eye for numbers and a mind that notices things and figures them out. “It’s all here, inside,” she says. Her routine life of assisting the cook at Sunnyside Plaza gets disrupted when two residents die in rapid succession, and then a third suffers a stroke. The detectives sent to investigate find a helper in Sally, who from her perch in the kitchen observes a great deal (this includes her eavesdropping on conversations about Sunnyside that help the reader understand the nature of its occupants and purpose). Earnest and humane, Mr. Simon’s story brims with so much intentional kindness that it sometimes slops over the edge, but readers ages 8 and older aren’t likely to mind.
British author Joseph Elliott similarly found inspiration in working with special-needs children. Like Mr. Simon, he has turned that experience into fiction, in this instance a planned trilogy set in a mythic, long-ago Scotland for readers ages 12 and older. The first volume, “The Good Hawk” (Walker, 319 pages, $17.99), is narrated by two teenagers, Jaime and Agatha. It’s clear from Agatha’s quirky, assertive voice and the way others respond to her that she has Down syndrome (though the phrase doesn’t appear in the text) and, from other cues, that Jaime does not. The two teens are thrown together when tattooed raiders attack the walled enclave where they live with their clan on the Isle of Skye. In the horrific onslaught, those not killed outright are taken away in longships. It’s up to Agatha and Jaime, with all their frailties and talents (in her case, a supernatural skill), to embark on a rescue mission across turbulent seas to the mainland of Scotia, a place all but emptied by plague and prowled by monsters. As Agatha might say, this is a gripping story and a dark one and it is a good one.
The world doesn’t have much patience with boisterous, impulsive or mischievous children. It pretends that it does, but really it wants them to sit down, be quiet and take turns. Alas, for certain exuberant souls, orderly conduct is so unnatural as to seem unattainable. Annie Barrows introduces us to one such person in the fabulously funny and perceptive pages of “The Best of Iggy” (Putnam, 125 pages, $13.99), the first in a planned series for children ages 8-12.
Illustrated by Sam Ricks, the book captures exactly how it feels to get so caught up with an idea that you forget (a) how it might look to others and (b) what regrettable consequences might ensue. This is how things are with 9-year-old Iggy Frangi, who isn’t a bad kid but who keeps getting into trouble. First he’s exiled from the table for laughing so hard that he sprays his food. Then he’s confined to quarters for chasing another boy off a shed roof. Then he gets so carried away with a game that he scares his sister and ruins his mother’s lipstick. And then— well, let’s not talk about what happens when Iggy organizes a drag race in the fourth-grade classroom and kneecaps his favorite teacher. Let’s just say that children with impish tendencies will finish this book feeling seen and understood. And the next time they get into trouble, you can expect to hear all about the extenuating circumstances.
Deborah Marcero uses delicate lines and vibrant colors to illustrate a tale of eccentricity and friendship in the pages of “In a Jar” (Putnam, 32 pages, $17.99). The first picture shows a small rabbit who is holding a glass container and walking through a flurry of apricot-colored leaves in a birch forest. “Llewellyn was a collector,” we read—a solitary gatherer of autumn leaves, heart-shaped rocks and other oddments.
One evening, when the sky turns “the color of tart cherry syrup” (a phrase best read aloud slowly), Llewellyn gives a jar of the rosy light to a stranger named Evelyn. Soon the two are friends and go collecting all sorts of things together: rainbows, ocean sounds, the winter wind. But then Evelyn has to move away. How will she and Llewellyn stay in touch? The details in Ms. Marcero’s beguiling pictures add a seek-and-find element to this tender story for children ages 3-7.