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15 October 2009 STAR IN THE FOREST by Laura Resau, Delacorte, March 2010, 160p., ISBN: 978-0-385-73792-0; Libr. ISBN: 978-0-385-90700-2

"There is a forest behind my trailer, through the weeds and under the gate and across the trickly, oily ditch.  It is a forest of very, very old car parts, heaps of rusted metal, spotted orangey brown, with rainbow layers of fading paint, and leaves and vines poking and twisting through the holes.  Birds and snakes and bugs sometimes peek out from the pipes and hubcaps.  My neighborhood is called Forest View Mobile Home Park.  I think this must be the forest they're talking about.
"On the day Papa was deported, that's where I went."
So begins the story of Zitlally and her neighbor Crystal, two young girls living next door to each other in the trailer park.  Zitlally has girlfriends and Crystal has not been one of them, but after Papa is deported she no longer has it in her to keep up appearances with the trio who will quickly become her former friends: 
"In the two years we'd been friends, Emma and Morgan and Olivia were always inviting me to go ice-skating or to the mall or to the movies or something.  It was hard work being their friend.  It made me feel like a nervous squirrel, always with my eyes big and my ears perked up.
"I had to watch their clothes to know what to wear.  Watch their hair to know how to do mine.  Watch how they stood and sat and walked so I could do the same.  I had to listen to which words they used so I could use them, too.  Listen to how their voices went up at the end of a sentence so I could make mine an echo.
"There's a reason squirrels do dumb things like run in front of cars.  They're all muddled up from so much watching and listening."
When Zitlally ventures into the forest that day Papa is deported to Mexico, she discovers a skin-and-bones dog, white with a black star, chained to the auto scrap heaps.  She begins caring for the dog she names Star (which is the translation of her own name), and one day she arrives to find Crystal there with the dog.  Crystal had been an object of scorn amongst Zitlally's former friends, but Zitlally will come to find her to be a real character and a real friend.
"She kept petting Star and talking.  'I saw you come down here and I wondered what you were up to.  My mom's boyfriend's out of work now and he's always in a crabby mood.  He used to be a dictator of some small island way out in the middle of nowhere.  Out past Hawaii.  He was so evil they overthrew him and excommunicated him.  And he has so many enemies that are always trying to assassinate him that he had to go into hiding in this Forest View craphole.''
One of the coolest things readers will take away from STAR IN THE FOREST has to do with giving someone the benefit of the doubt.  I don't want to give the story away, but I'll say that the author sets it up so perfectly that when we meet a particular character far into the book, he is definitely and immediately the object of our anger.  How could he do what he's done? 
But then we hear his side of things and find that we are totally wrong about him.  Don't you totally hate it when someone treats you that way?  And isn't that how prejudice and intolerance spreads -- we make judgements before really getting to know someone -- or a group of someones, like Mexican immigrants who are in our country without proper paperwork?
I love Laura Resau's RED GLASS, which was on my Best of 2007 list.  (I was delighted to see that it has since made Oprah's list for 12-and-up kids, and has been winning all sorts of state awards.)  But I think Resau has done something even bigger here.  I find it a much rarer discovery to come across such an important-yet-sweet book that will be embraced by third, fourth, fifth and even sixth graders, one that deals so incredibly well -- on a level appropriate for younger readers -- with issues of friendship and poverty and borders and of not making assumptions about people you don't really know. 

Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com



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FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books. You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received. Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

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