Thursday, July 5, 2012

2013 Contenders: Hiss-s-s-s!, by Eric A. Kimmel

Generally speaking, when I say “overly didactic,” it’s meant as a criticism. Although I believe that art can and indeed should help us to become better people, I don’t want obvious moralizing or sermonizing in my literature – not even my literature for children. Start going down that road, and before you know it, you’re writing The Berenstain Bears and the Female Fullback.

But what of books where the message isn’t ethical, but informational? Even if the literary quality doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Moby Dick (completion of which I think qualifies one to open one’s own whaling operation), there’s still a place for such books, especially for reluctant readers.

Hiss-s-s-s!, by Eric A. Kimmel, is a good example of this kind of book**. It’s the story of Omar, a boy who wants a pet snake, and it includes at least as much information about how to care for snakes as your average pet guide for children. The information is presented as the results of Omar’s research and the guidance given to him by the dealer from whom he obtains his snake, and it didn’t feel out of place or annoying to me, even though I recognized those sections for what they were. For good measure, there’s also some content about phobias, since Omar’s mother has a powerful fear of snakes.

The book is fast-paced and fairly short. I appreciated the fact that it inhabits the world in which many present-day children live, one in which text messaging and YouTube and Spongebob Squarepants are simply facts of life, rather than that odd landscape so prevalent in much children’s literature, where trade names are nonexistent, and the most one might see with reference to technology is a generic reference to “the internet.” I understand that authors don't generally want to sound like corporate shills, but at the same time, it's hard to convey an accurate picture of modern American life without mentioning any trademarked words.

It was also nice to see Omar as a hero with an unusual ethnic background (mixed Pakistani and Lebanese) in a story where the author didn’t feel compelled to make that the main focus, but simply accepted it. It's a good-natured, even funny, book, and it seems to perfectly fit what Uma Krishnaswami was talking about in the May/June issue of The Horn Book -- a book that is capable of "mixing humor with matters of race [and] culture." For most of the novel, Omar's culture is matter-of-factly normalized, and when his mother's fear of snakes turns out to be related to past events in her home country, it doesn't feel gratuitous or tacked-on.

Is Hiss-s-s-s! great literature in the same way as Charlotte's Web or When You Reach Me or several of this year's leading Newbery contenders? Probably not. Will it win any awards? Almost certainly not. But the 10-year-old boy in me loved it, and I think it’s a title for which you could easily create an exciting booktalk, and which kids would genuinely enjoy reading. As much as we need books like The One and Only Ivan or Wonder, we need books like this too.

Publication on 9/1/12 by Holiday House.

 **It also has one of my favorite titles of its type since Jamie Gilson's It Goes Eeeeeeeeeeeee! (1994).

1 comment:

  1. I think the problem with mentioning specific technologies/shows/products is that it ages the book too quickly. It's hard to strike a balance between timeliness and timelessness.