Friday, October 23, 2015

2016 Contenders: Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate

This past weekend, I was having brunch with two of my favorite people, Sam and Rachael, and the inevitable topic of conversation among a gathering of book lovers came up: “Whatcha reading?” I told them I was reading Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. They asked if I was liking it. I sighed. I said I didn’t know how I felt about it. I told them the basic plot, and Sam said “Oh, it’s like Harvey for kids.” And I realized he was exactly correct, and that indeed I didn’t know how I felt about a Harvey for kids.

Harvey, for those who aren’t familiar, is a play by Mary Chase, which was famously adapted to a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart. It’s the story of a man named Elwood P. Dowd, who has a friend named Harvey, who he says is a six foot tall walking rabbit. Elwood’s family wonders if they should have him committed. There are clues that lead you to question whether Harvey is imaginary or just invisible to everyone but Elwood, but the general consensus is that he’s suffering from a delusion, but it’s a delusion that isn’t hurting anyone, least of all kind and caring Elwood, so he is spared the sanitarium.

Crenshaw is very much a nod to Harvey. Applegate even opens the book with a quote from the play. It’s the story of a boy named Jackson. Jackson is a fifth grader who loves facts. He’s very logical, values honesty, and wants to be scientist. When he was in first grade he had an imaginary friend, a very large talking cat named Crenshaw, but that’s baby stuff, and he’s outgrown Crenshaw. Or so he thinks. Much to his chagrin, Crenshaw has shown up in his life again.

Come to find out, Jackson met Crenshaw when his family was homeless. Both his parents lost their jobs. In addition to struggling financially, Jackson’s dad was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When they could no longer afford to live in their house, the entire family - Jackson, his parents, his sister Robin who was just a baby then, and their dog Aretha - moved into their minivan. Times were very hard, and having a friend helped, so Crenshaw became a part of Jackson’s life. Eventually Jackson’s parents saved enough money for an apartment and re-establish some stability.

That was years ago, but lately Jackson’s noticed some serious signs of insecurity - a distinct lack of variety of food in the pantry, frequent yard sales, his parents arguing about applying for assistance - and he’s frankly scared to be homeless again. He’s also frustrated by his parents who insist on changing the subject when it arises or feigning that things are better than they are. It’s about this time Crenshaw reappears.

There were things about Crenshaw that were problematic for me.

For one, the character of Crenshaw is kind of pompous. I mean, he’s a cat, so I suppose that’s to be expected. But there are moments I felt he was impatient with Jackson, who is befuddled by his return. He alludes to being smarter than Jackson, which I guess could be true, but isn’t very friendly, and what is an imaginary friend supposed to be if not friendly?

There are a few Harvey-esque moments where you may question whether Crenshaw is truly an invention of Jackson’s stressed imagination, or if he’s… well… something else? So I guess you could categorize the book as magical realism, and if you go into it prepared for that kind of story you may enjoy it more than I did.

Another, totally valid in my opinion, way to read Crenshaw is as a horror story.

I recently had an in-depth online conversation with several friends about whether or not Halloween, and “scary” things in general, have been too toned down, to make things “kid-friendly.” What prompted the conversation was during a twilight walk through my neighborhood I realized that Halloween here had basically turned into “orange Christmas,” with twinkling lights replacing any more menacing decorations. Even the jack-o-lanterns looked cute. Traumatizing children is a real concern, of course, and caregivers should know and respect their children enough to not expose them to things they can’t handle yet. Trick-or-treating is supposed to fun. But it’s also supposed to be scary! Is it right to throw away traditions so we won’t upset anyone? Is it wrong to spook our kids every now and then, especially when we know danger isn’t actually present? I cited Grimm fairy tales, and an Austrian Krampuslauf, as examples of safe but scary things for children. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I liked creepy stuff, like Tim Burton movies, and Alvin Schwartz books, when I was young. And I tend to believe experiencing fear through media can help children be resilient when forced to face fear in real life. Are there monsters in my closet? Definitely not. The conversation unexpectedly meandered into a discussion about what is actually scary in the world - things like war, hunger, and social injustice - and how long we ought to protect children from these things, to maintain their innocence. I had not considered a correlation between the horror of ghosts and witches and things that are realistically scary. Like becoming homeless. And I think this idea very much colored my reading of Crenshaw.

Jackson is scared of his family being homeless again. He’s scared there won’t be enough to eat. He’s also scared when his dad has to use a cane, and I think it’s safe to say he’s a bit scared of the enormous talking cat he didn’t invite back into his life, showing up all over the place, making him question his own sanity. I could see this book truly distressing a sensitive reader. I work in a public library where homelessness and hunger are not far-fetched concerns for many in our service area, and I know kids who are housing insecure and food insecure. By the way, I want to give big ups to the librarian in this book, who is helpful and non-judgmental. Way to be, fictional librarian. You are a hero.

I found the ending of Crenshaw to be a bit ambiguous. Throughout the book the reader is lead to believe Crenshaw is only present when Jackson is in need (even if he doesn’t think he is in need). When Jackson’s family’s financial troubles appear to be resolved, at least for the time being, we presume Crenshaw will go away again, but he doesn’t. I was unsatisfied by this, because I wanted Jackson to be “okay” and I’m not sure him continuing to see and hear things others cannot constitutes being okay. But if Harvey is the precedent, I suppose it’s fine to just leave the story there?

I think Crenshaw is probably under consideration for the Newbery, however I don’t know how strong a contender it is. I don’t think it's as finely crafted as Applegate’s 2013 winner The One and Only Ivan. But it is a thought-provoking, opinion-inspiring novel, so the committee will at least have a possibly rollicking, possibly raucous, discussion about it ahead of them. Let the literary throw-down commence! Oh, and...


  1. I thought the story was pretty terrible and can't imagine how it could be a contender. One of my gripes was that the dad was given MS so that their poverty was justified. So poor/hungry kids whose parents don't have MS or another physical/medical issue can feel even worse about their poverty/hunger. This is America where a huge and growing number of children live in poverty, Applegate doesn't need to justify poverty by giving the dad MS.
    Big picture, this book seemed to be written for bibliotherapy not as a work of literature. It's content seems very didactic in the worst sense of the word. I'm not says it's level of writing was WONDER bad, but it's certainly closer to WONDER than newbery contention.

  2. I had similarly ambiguous feelings about this book. Mostly, I wanted more about what was happening in the present, and it felt like the book spent a lot of time describing the past.

  3. Obviously this book wasn't one of my favorites. Also obviously I'm a poor writer of negative reviews. I really want to see the merit in every book I review. We probably should have had Sam review this book ;)

    1. I like how I'm the go-to choice for negative reviews ^_~

    2. You express disapproval so eloquently :)