I read The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and Matt Phelan for the Newbery Challenge and the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I really enjoyed this novel, which is intended for an audience of children from ages nine to eleven.
Lucky is a spirited ten year old girl who lives in an impoverished small town in the Mojave desert. The conflict she faces was a bit simplistic for me; like a bad TV sitcom conflict, it arises out of a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up with some simple communication. But I'm not ten years old, and maybe kids of this age could use a book that teaches them to just ask when they're confused.
SPOILER WARNING: Lucky's dad has never been a part of her life, and her mother died two years ago. When that happened, her dad, whom she didn't even recognize, convinced his ex-wife from before his marriage to Lucky's mom to come and take care of Lucky. Lucky believes that this is a temporary arrangement until she can be put in a foster home, but she's grown attached to her guardian, Brigitte, and understandably isn't ready to face losing another adult she cares about. She sees Brigitte's passport out and assumes Brigitte is going home to France without her. So Lucky runs away from home, hoping that Brigitte will miss her so much that she realizes she should stay with Lucky. As it turns out, Brigitte only has her passport out as a form of ID for a hearing to adopt Lucky permanently.
Many children's books present a false view of the world in which children have no contact with difficult situations, or with the adult world. I think that this sort of approach in children's literature gives children a strange sense that the rest of the world is safer and saner and simpler, more ethical and straightforward than their own life experiences. This gives them a feeling that there's something wrong with them and the people they know in real life.
In this book, however, Lucky eavesdrops on AA meetings and hears a lot of confusing things she doesn't understand. She has to try to come to terms with the fact that her father has simply never wanted kids and isn't about to start wanting kids now just because she has no other parent to take care of her. She wrestles with the cultural differences between her and her French guardian. She's also entirely aware that everyone in her town is poor, and that the free government food they get is of a low quality.
I think that many children reading this book will feel relief to know that even kids in books face challenges they don't really understand. I also think many children will miss some of the references to adult situations (such as twelve step programs) but they will recognize that Lucky doesn't understand either, and that will reassure them that it's natural for kids to encounter aspects of the adult world they can't make sense of.
The fact that Lucky's mother has died will be especially reassuring to kids who have had enormous losses in their own lives and are tired of reading about kids in perfect little worlds where everything is always just fine.
There was a big hullabaloo about the fact that this book contains the word "scrotum." This word, which Lucky overhears but doesn't know the meaning of, is just one more thing Lucky doesn't understand. Personally, I'm surprised that people could worry that the word scrotum might traumatize children while it's more likely a child reading this book would be shocked by the idea that hey, their mom could die in an electrocution accident, too, just any old time, right out of the blue.
Um, it's a dog's genitals mentioned in the book this objector so obviously didn't read. Every kid who has a dog sees their dog's scrotum all the time. Maybe we should start requiring dogs to wear pants in public. And they should keep their tails tucked into their dogpants, because tails are also a dog body part mentioned in this book.
But as for men's genitalia, half the kids reading this book carry around scrota attached to their bodies every day. They've probably noticed such things exist by now. As for the girls, maybe this book will initiate a birds-and-bees discussion with their parents when they go ask what "scrotum" means like Lucky did. They are theoretically nine to eleven, definitely of an age to wonder how babies are made. Or even be menstruating themselves. I would prefer that menstruating pre-teen girls know what scrota are for, so they can avoid them, but maybe that's just me.
All in all, I highly recommend this book, but don't take my word for it; take the American Library Association's recommendation. They awarded the 2007 Newbery Medal to this book.