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2 October 2013 FAR FAR AWAY by Tom McNeal, Knopf, June 2013, 384p., ISBN: 978-0-375-84972-6 


"And I'm so sad

Like a good book I can't put this day back

A sorta fairytale with you"

-- Tori Amos (2002)


"While our group strolls down Main Street, allow me to provide a word or two about Jeremy Johnson Johnson.  When he was six or seven years of age, he told one of his schoolmates that he sometimes heard voices, 'a strange whispering,' he did not know whose, but if he pressed a finger right here -- he pointed to his temple -- he could hear the voices more clearly.  'Jeremy hears voices!' the other boy sang out, and from there the news worked its way up and down the streets of the village.

"Some in the town believed there was something askew in Jeremy's mind, some believed he was too suggestible, and some believed his silver tooth fillings received transmissions from distant radio stations.

"But I can tell you with certainty that Jeremy Johnson Johnson did hear unworldly voices.

"How do I know this?

"Because he heard mine.

"So!  Perhaps you had already guessed.  I am the ancient ghost mentioned at the outset of this tale.  The one whose intentions were good.

"As a mortal man, I was known as Jacob Grimm.  Yes, the very one!  With my younger brother, Wilhelm, I lived once in Germany, in the village of Steinau in the Kingdom of Hesse.  (The house is still there -- I took a guided tour some years ago.  Ha!)  Both of us were linguists, but our collection of household stories -- fairy tales, they are now commonly called -- is what you doubtlessly know."


Jacob Grimm's ghost, who narrates FAR FAR AWAY, is stuck in the Zwischenraum -- the place between here and the hereafter.  He has become a mentor, guardian, and daily companion to Jeremy Johnson Johnson.  Jeremy's a sweet kid who sure needs this kind of friend.  With a mother long gone and a heartsick father whose psychological issues keep him in bed staring at the TV, it is all up to Jeremy to keep their home and store from being foreclosed upon and thereby becoming homeless.  And when Ginger Boultinghouse -- a fetching schoolmate who becomes connected with Jeremy (and gets him in trouble by involving him in a prank) -- then tricks him into auditioning for the television contestant show "Uncommon Knowledge," there are hopes of a happy ending. 


But this is barely the start of a sophisticated and successful cross between contemporary coming-of-age, fantasy, and horror that taught me all about the lives and works of the Brothers Grimm (a topic about which I've until now been woefully ignorant). 


"The tales we collected are not merciful.  Villains are boiled in snake-filled oil, wicked Stiefm├╝tter -- stepmothers -- are made to dance into death in molten-hot shoes, and on and on.  The tales are full of terrible punishments, yes, but they follow just cause.  Goodness is rewarded; evil is not.  The generous simpleton finds more happiness and coin than the greedy king.  So why not mercy and justice to a sweet youth from an omnipotent and benevolent Creator?  There are only three answers.  He is not omnipotent, or he is not benevolent, or -- the dreariest possibility of all -- he is inattentive.  What if that was what happened to my nephew?  That God's gaze had merely strayed elsewhere?"


There are many philosophical issues to ponder here, so many cool allusions to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and so many surprises we encounter. For instance, I kept waiting for the presumed bully figure to get moving on his bullying.  He turns out to be pretty darn cool.  I kept waiting for the snoopy deputy sheriff to turn out to be an evil sleaze.  Instead, he ends up teary (right when I was getting all teary).  If you've read a lot of contemporary YA, you might well anticipate Ginger's being a certain way.  But it turns out that she's not.  That there are these surprises repeatedly taking the story where I did not expect it to go, and that I don't want to really get specific about them, so as to give you the opportunity to take the trip I just did, means that I need to really dance around a bit with what I write.


"'A voice told me.  A singing voice.  It woke me up and told me.'"


This is one of those tween books that neatly spans that overlap between the American Library Association's ALSC and YALSA divisions.  This means it is considered both upper end children's literature and younger end YA and will be on the radar of two different ALA award committees -- as well it should be. 


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/



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