Wednesday, September 9, 2015

2016 Contenders: A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord

Lily Dumont lives with her grandparents in small-town Maine. The local economy relies heavily on blueberry farming, and blueberries require migrant workers to pick them. When Lily's blind dog Lucky runs away, and is caught by a migrant girl about Lily's age, Salma Santiago, an unlikely friendship forms.

There are a lot of moving parts in Cynthia Lord's most recent novel: Lily's fraying relationship with her friend Hannah; the uneasiness between the migrant workers and the locals; Lily's desire to raise money for cataract surgery for Lucky; Salma's interest in the Blueberry Queen pageant; residual angst from the absence of Lily's mother; art as a means of self-expression. It's to Lord's credit that the book manages to keep all of those metaphorical balls in the air without dropping any of them. A Handful of Stars is a well-written book, and people who enjoy Lord's ability to write difficult relationships honestly will find a lot to like here.

That being said, I don't know that A Handful of Stars stacks up particularly well against Lord's own oeuvre; I think it's a noticeably weaker book than last year's Half a Chance, and the odds of it replacing Rules (2006) as the first line in any bio of Lord aren't high. While the core pair of Lily and Salma are well-drawn, the rest of the characters didn't seem to have the same life to them. Maybe more importantly, I just didn't feel that invested or interested in the portions that dealt with Lily's mother. (Spoilers follow.)

We don't find out until a good halfway through the book that Lily's mother is actually dead. However, this is information that Lily, who narrates the book, already has, and that everyone around her except Salma already has as well. Lily does mention that she's not a huge fan of talking about it, but if the core idea is that mentioning her mother's death is simply too painful for her, it's too muted to be effective. Instead, it feels like an artificial attempt to inject tension; I felt manipulated as a reader.

The prevalence of dead, missing, or incompetent parents in children's literature is basically its own meme at this point. On one level, it's understandable -- it's hard to be off having awesome adventures or discovering yourself if someone is looking over your shoulder the whole time. On another, if you're going to use that trope, you'd better have something clever or interesting to say about it. (See: Roller Skates, The Higher Power of Lucky, Zebra Forest, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, etc.) In A Handful of Stars, there are some elements about Lily's mother's history as a pageant winner, and the relationship between her death and Lily's dog Lucky, but I didn't feel like the absence of parents was really necessary to drive the story. Indeed, I think I would have liked the book better if it had just focused in on Lily and Salma, and eliminated the subplots involving Lily's family.

Even given those points, A Handful of Stars is an above-average book; the recurring intertwined images of blueberries and stars alone are worth the price of admission. There are stronger books in contention for this year's Newbery, however, and Lord herself is capable of writing stronger titles.

Published in May by Scholastic

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