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Richie's Picks: THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron & Matt Phelan (ill.) Atheneum/Richard Jackson, ISBN: 1-4169-0194-9


"Ain't got nothin' but my name,

And I'm the only man I know to blame.

But I'm livin' I'm happy and I'm free."

--Marshall Tucker, "Desert Skies"


"'So would you rather live in France or Hard Pan?'

"Short Sammy gave HMS Beagle a final scratch on her belly and squinted up at Lucky from under the brim of his cowboy hat. He stood, knees popping like when you pop your knuckles, and pivoted on the heel of his pointy-toed boot. 'Look man,' he said, and went to a window, which was a large square cut out of the tin wall at exactly the right level to make a frame for Lucky's face. Short Sammy and Lucky were the same height, except the boots and hat gave him some extra. 'Look at that,' he said.

"Lucky looked out at the jumble of trailers, sheds, outhouses, shacks, and rusty vehicles below. Dot was in her backyard hanging small white towels on a clothesline. At the edge of town Lucky's canned-ham bedroom trailer curled in a half circle with the other trailers it was connected to. 'What?' she said, looking for the thing Short Sammy wanted her to see.

"Lincoln came to the open doorway to look out in the same direction.

"'Just Hard Pan,' Short Sammy said. 'HP, pop. 43. And everything that isn't Hard Pan. Look.' Lucky did.

"Past the town the desert rolled out and out like a pale green ocean, as far as you could see, to the Coso foothills, then behind them, the huge black Coso Range like the broken edge of a giant cup that held tiny Hard Pan at its bottom. The sky arched up forever, nothing but a sheet of blue, hiding zillions of stars and planets and galaxies that were up there all the time, even when you couldn't see them. It was kind of peaceful and so gigantic it made your brain feel rested. It made you feel like you could become anything you wanted, like you were filled up with nothing but hope.

"HP, she was thinking. HP stood for Hard Pan, but, she realized, it could also stand for Higher Power. Maybe Hard Pan was Short Sammy's Higher Power because of its slowness and peacefulness and sweet-smellingness, even though it was old and junky and in the middle of nowhere. Lucky wondered if she could ever get Brigitte to love Hard Pan as much as she loved France."


Why, you might very well ask, am I bothering to write about the book that has already won the 2007 Newbery Medal? Everybody's going to buy a copy anyway, right?


Well, not so fast. First of all, I'd never gotten a shot at reading the book or talking about it. And secondly, just before the DHL van splashed up the gravel road and into the farm amidst the wind and rain yesterday, delivering my very own gold medal-emblazoned copy, I had the opportunity to read the listserve posts that are causing a little bit of an uproar, posts from a number of school library folk who are vowing to protect their school's children from exposure to any book -- Newbery or no Newbery -- that contains the word that is spelled s-c-r-o-t-u-m. Says the word on the very first page, no less!


So you have some elementary librarians -- apparently part of the Harris and Emberley Fan Club (Not!) -- claiming this is a dangerous YA book. Then you have a bunch of middle school librarians who have seen reviews that don't mention Short Sammy's Page 1 recounting of the life-altering incident when his dog Roy is bitten on the s-c-r-o-t-u-m by a rattlesnake. (Yes, Roy lives.). Some of these folks are assuming that a 130 page illustrated chapter book -- a la White and Williams -- is going to be too young a read for their Tween students. And then there are those librarians who will dutifully buy it for their school collections because it won the Newbery, but then will simply shelve it and let it die a quiet death by benign neglect without ever taking the opportunity to read and booktalk it.


The fact is that following any of these scenarios would be an absolute crime because THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY is both a thoroughly enchanting and truly profound tale of a young girl who is clinging to a seemingly precarious family situation while trying to find her own place in the world.

And just as it would be nuts to not have a copy of, say, WINN-DIXIE or HOLLIS WOODS in both the elementary school's collection and the middle school's collection, THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY is one to which students in both age ranges should have access.


"I've been walking

Along a crooked path

Where the walls have fallen

And broken me in half"

--Martin Page, "In the House of Stone and Light"


THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY is set in the world of Hard Pan, California, a place seemingly devoid of cellies, I-Pods, pimped-up rides, and Prada; a place where the only reality show is life, death and the weather, and where social networking is what takes place at the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center -- the closest thing the town has to a church or synagogue -- where meetings of the various twelve-step anonymous groups -- alcoholics, gamblers, smokers, and overeaters -- take place on different days of the week.


Unbeknownst to the members of the various Twelve Step groups, ten year-old Lucky Trimble is regularly listening in when they are sharing their "hitting rock bottom" stories at the meetings while she does her vital job of cleaning the patio outside where the members gather after the meetings. ("The recovering alcoholics hated to see or smell beer cans left by the recovering smokers and gamblers; the recovering smokers could not stand cigarette butts left by the recovering drinkers, and the recovering overeaters hated to see candy wrappers left by the recovering drinkers, smokers, and gamblers.")


And so, armed with the collective wisdom of the recovering members of her little desert community, Lucky tries to figure out how to overcome her own problems.


"Lucky pounded the Formica table with both fists, which made HMS Beagle leap to her feet and look at Lucky worriedly. It's almost impossible to get control of your life when you're only ten. It's other people, adults, who have control of your life, because they can abandon you.

"They can die, like Lucky's mother.

"They can decide they don't even want you, like Lucky's father.

"And they can return to France as suddenly and easily as they left it, like Brigitte. And even if you carry a survival kit around with you at all times, it won't guarantee you'll survive. No kit in the world can protect you from all the possible bad things."


The serenity that Lucky discovers within Hard Pan, population 43, is something that you truly do not want to miss.


Richie Partington

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_...


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