Tuesday, April 17, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Boy on Cinnamon Street, by Phoebe Stone

I'm going to make with some plot summary for this one, since I'm not seeing it mentioned much in my usual haunts.

Louise Terrace used to have lots of friends. She used to be the star of her gymnastics team. She used to have a mom and a dad and a regular life, and she used to grow (as a seventh grader, she's stalled at 4'7"). None of those things are true any more, and we readers don't know why, because Louise has "forgotten" a pivotal week of her life. Now Louise - or Thumbelina, as she wants to be called - lives with her vaguely hippie-ish grandparents on the other side of town. She has two new nerdy (but very loyal) friends. Oh, and she has a secret admirer. Unraveling the mystery behind that last one will lead her back to the week everything changed - back to Cinnamon Street.

All of the glowing reviews of this book seem to use the word "sweet." "Honey sweet," says the Bulletin for the Center for Children's books. "Achingly sweet," says Booklist. I would agree: sweet, sweet, sweet. And yet this is, at heart, a story about trauma. There are parallels with Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson - a book that, for all of its brilliance, nobody would label as sweet.

Who writes a sweet preteen romance about repressed trauma?

The same person who intersperses poignant, lyrical prose with pitch-perfect bits of preteen vernacular: "For some dumb reason, I am thinking about my mom's sky blue shoes when I place the order on my cell. My dad liked those shoes. They were the kind of shoes you had to follow across the rug because of that color. I can't remember anything else. Zippo. Squat. I'm glad that kid bought those shoes because now I won't have to see that color by mistake when I open a closet door. Lake blue. Pond blue. Dark sky blue." 

(Incidentally, Phoebe Stone seems like exactly the kind of person who could pull off that kind of magic. This is the first of her books that I've read, but I heard her speak at a library conference once. She's small, red-haired and fairy-like, and she read aloud a passage from All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel that involved singing "Oh Shenandoah" a capella with an utter lack of self-consciousness. I remember it with chills.)

Stone has such affection and sympathy for her characters. Overweight Reni with her crush on Justin Bieber, beatifically nerdy Henderson and his astronomical obsessions, the grandparents with their embarrassing 60's music tastes and pet names... I wanted to know them all. And she's a master of showing rather than telling, making it possible for the reader to fit together the pieces of Louise's puzzle even as Louise herself refuses to see it. 

This, of course, may be pitched at too old of a reader to attract the eye of the Newbery committee (though it fits well within the 0-14 range). And it doesn't "feel" like a Newbery book to me - but hey, neither does Criss Cross. In any case, it made me want to read more Phoebe Stone.

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