Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2016 Contenders: Watch Out for Flying Kids!, by Cynthia Levinson

I first heard rumblings about Watch Out for Flying Kids! around a year ago. I was immediately interested, since I thought Cynthia Levinson's last book, We've Got a Job, was excellent, and youth social circuses seemed like a fascinating topic for a nonfiction book. It sounded like a winning combination.

Having now finally been able to obtain and read a copy of Watch Out for Flying Kids!, it pains me to say that this title doesn't hang together as well as We've Got a Job. I think there are two main problems that prevent this one from reaching the heights of its predecessor, and I think it's useful to talk about both of them.

One of the things I really liked about We've Got a Job was the way it managed to intercut the stories of four individual children with the larger events of the Birmingham Children's March, and to do so without losing the thread of the narrative. Watch Out for Flying Kids! isn't much longer than We've Got a Job, but there are now eleven main characters (five kids from the St. Louis Arches, four from the Galilee Circus, and the adult director of each circus), as well as a host of secondary characters. I found it difficult even to keep track of the book's cast, and I felt like I didn't get to spend enough time with any of them for their stories to have weight and heft.

This is especially noticeable because, while We've Got a Job had a clear climax (the March itself), Watch Out for Flying Kids! doesn't really build to a specific moment in the same way. The personal stories of the performers could make up for that muted external narrative, but there are just too many of them, too thinly spread, for it to be effective. Similarly, although there's an overarching theme of learning to build bridges between mistrustful communities, that theme doesn't get a specific dénouement.

The second -- and in my mind, more serious -- problem has to do with the book's support apparatus. It spends four pages of the introduction on an Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation guide, but it contains no glossary of any kind. Because so much of the book is concerned with what's going on in the ring of the circus, and I don't really know the technical terms associated with circus work, that lack made the book nearly unreadable to me. Additionally, especially in the sections of the book set in Israel, there are many discussions of different towns and places, but the book doesn't contain a map. I also would have loved a quick "cast list" reference, but even though there's a sort of "where are they now" section in the afterword, it only included the "main characters."I found the book difficult going without those helps, and I think a child reader might have serious problems navigating the book without these customary aids.

It's clear that the stories of Watch Out for Flying Kids! mean a great deal to Levinson. I'm unconvinced, however, that she translates that importance so that readers can understand it. I'd love to see what Levinson does next, but I don't anticipate Watch Out for Flying Kids! showing up in the YMAs.

Published in August by Peachtree

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