Friday, January 17, 2014
REVIEW: HOLLY SCHINDLER'S DEBUT MIDDLE-GRADE, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY
Folk art is deceptively simple. Its distinguishing feature is often a kind of naivete that other forms of art strive to avoid, but what draws us to it is not technique - it's something more primal. Folk art is an extension, and in many ways a celebration, of the ordinary; and appreciation of folk art is a form of recognition that the ordinary is also the universal. Norman Rockwell was a folk artist. What set him apart was his extremely sophisticated technique, which made his work acceptable to sophisticated people. But nobody adored Norman Rockwell for his technique. He was adored for his observation of, and devotion to, the most mundane of human experiences.
THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY is a piece of folk art disguised as a middle-grade novel, and it takes a very clever author to pull off that trick. On its surface, JUNCTION is the story of Auggie Jones's year in fifth grade: her rocky transition to a new school, where for the first time she has classmates who aren't from her own little pocket of town; the loss of her best friend, Lexie, who decides that Vanessa, one of those new classmates, is more exotic and alluring than Auggie; the fact that Auggie has not yet discovered her "shine," her word for the individual quality that makes each person she knows special in some way; and her relationship with her grandfather, Gus, her de facto parent and the only blood relative she knows.
But Auggie's personal circumstances represent only the most obvious layer of meaning in this novel. From the first few pages of the book, we know that Auggie's connections to her community, known as Serendipity Place, run deep. Gus is Auggie's anchor, but the neighborhood is her place in the world. And just when Auggie's personal equilibrium is threatened by Lexie's desertion, the equilibrium of the entire community is suddenly faced with a threat too: the appearance of the House Beautification Committee, whose motto - "making our city beautiful, one house at a time -" begins to seem more ominous with each letter it sends to the bewildered residents of Serendipity Place.
At first, the letters are fairly neutral in tone, requesting only that the neighborhood's residents make efforts to improve the appearance of their houses and properties. Many people are skeptical and/or worried, because no one on Serendipity Place has a lot of money for anything beyond basic necessities. But after much thought, Auggie comes up with a solution: since Gus makes his living hauling trash, why can't some of those discarded cars and appliances and pieces of big equipment be repurposed to help with neighborhood beautification? The idea catches on, and people start making inexpensive improvements to their properties, but it's Auggie whose imagination takes flight. Remembering that Gus used to be a welder, she starts dreaming up projects for reusing old metal, instructing Gus exactly how to carry out her plans. The two of them start out making flowers, but before long their sculptures take the form of people, and a metallic community starts to fill their front yard. Perhaps not surprisingly, every member of the "company" in Auggie's and Gus's front yard is entirely different from every other one.
But it turns out that the Committee judges all of the neighborhood's renovation projects to be merely "eyesores." The people of Serendipity Place have tried to do what they thought the Committee wanted them to, only to learn that their efforts have been deemed "substandard," which apparently means "outside of the box." And it appears that the chief proponent of keeping everything rigidly inside the box is Mr. Cole, a member of the City Council who just happens to be the father of Vanessa, Lexie's replacement best friend.
The situation on Serendipity Place becomes increasingly dire. Fines on each property keep adding up, no one can afford to pay them, and finally the entire neighborhood is declared "blighted." And that's when the City Council starts advising the residents to sell their now-almost-valueless homes back to the City, so that the houses can be demolished and a shiny new Community Center built in their place.
Which brings us to the deepest layer, one that will not be apparent to most eight-to-twelve year old readers, but will be absorbed by osmosis all the same. This is the South, but this book is not TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Times have changed since the 1930's, and the most destructive and polarizing undercurrent of society in Auggie's fictional city is no longer race. In fact, Schindler makes it clear that Serendipity Place is racially mixed. Lexie has bright red hair; Auggie, on the other hand, when she is feeling especially defeated, thinks that her own skin is the color of mud. The "Suits" on the Council are not trying to destroy Auggie's neighborhood because the people who live there are black. They're trying to destroy it because the people who live there are poor, and the Suits don't want to look at them or have to accept them as human beings. The dark underbelly of this story is a gaping divide between social classes, the Haves and the Have-nots. The Haves want to make all the rules to serve their own purposes, which include ensuring that the Have-nots will lose what little they do have and, if all goes according to plan, just slink away and disappear. I hope you will be pleased to see how utterly that plan fails.
A lot more happens in this book, which is why you should immediately buy it and read it, but I don't think I'm spoiling too much by revealing that in the end, right triumphs over might, and Auggie finds her shine. And it glows brighter than the brightest star.
JUNCTION will be released by Dial Press on February 6th, only a few weeks away. And remember that on January 25th, a week from tomorrow, Holly Schindler will be making a blog stop right here, and answering my question: "JUNCTION is all about found objects. Can you talk a little about what you've 'found' during the process of writing each of your three published novels?"
Be aware that Holly not only writes beautifully; she speaks beautifully too. You really don't want to miss this vlog. And meanwhile, you can visit Holly's website, www.hollyschindler.com, where you'll be able to see book trailers and reviews; her blog, www.hollyschindler.blogspot.com; or her site for young readers, www.hollyschindlermiddles.weebly.com, where her tween fans will be able to post their own reviews! And Holly's on Twitter, too. If you can't find her somewhere, it's totally your own fault!