Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Do you remember when you first heard this cliche?   If you're like me, you probably wondered how the saying got started.   Your elementary school self probably wondered where are all of these ugly books were.   I never saw any.   And then I saw this...

Really?   This is the best you can do?

Ug.   I'm pretty sure I was the chump who put in a request for this book for our school library.   The reviews were spectacular.   So what's with the long face?

Even so, I grabbed the book and took it home yesterday.   Once I started, I was about 3/4 of the way through before I could stop.     This. Book. IS. Spectacular.  

The young man who narrates the story is full of pluck, humor, tenderness and goodwill.   In spite of some very hefty baggage, 14 year-old Doug Swieteck keeps getting back up and giving people second chances.   He is charming, even when he's not.   His character is often allowed to do the equivalent of a film actor looking right into the camera with a wink.   His voice doesn't give you a chance to disengage from the text.   Doug's not perfect; he'll tell you that.   It's through his imperfections that author Gary D. Schmidt creates a compelling character.

I read the book reviews and was perplexed about how Mr. Schmidt could integrate some of John J. Audubon's bird art into a young adult novel, but he does.   Perfectly.   You'll see.   There's a bit of Jane Eyre and Our Town...and a merciless gym teacher.   There's baseball, horseshoes and Coca-Cola in bottles.   There's a library, a girl and hope.

And there's a moment when you, dear reader, will hold your breath for a few pages.   The scene unfolds in slow motion.   Somehow Schmidt shifts your reading speed into first gear and harnesses the passing of time.   That's how great this story is.

Now that I sit down to write this, I am truly sad that Doug is a work of fiction.   On the other hand, who's to say that he's not?   We've all marveled at the resilience of children in spite of just about anything.  

In short, the goofy, superficial picture you see masks the captivating depth of this story.   The mood evoked by that image does not appear in the text.   That's not Doug.   But you've been preparing for this moment all of your life.   Don't judge this book by its cover.   Doug insists.

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