Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore

Can too much curiosity spur accidental bullying?

Moore, Julianne. Freckleface Strawberry. Illustrations by LeUyen Pham. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: An exuberant little girl tries everything to hide her red hair and freckles. She quickly uncovers a difficult choice: either go through life alone and uncomfortable or accept her own oddities.

Critique: First off, Pham’s vigorous, lively illustrations bring the entire book to life. She crafts distinct postures rich with emotion and expression.

And if you are wondering whether the Julianne Moore who authored this book is the same Julianne Moore who played Maude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the answer is yes!

For me, the most interesting facet of Moore’s text is the way she uses excessive curiosity as a vehicle for unintended persecution. Unlike the hobgoblins I evidently grew up among, the children in this book are not outright mean. Rather than bully and tease the protagonist about the features that make her unique, they pepper her with questions.

Do freckles hurt? What do they smell like?

To be fair, they do nickname her Freckleface Strawberry and at least one kid makes a lame joke. But on the whole, Moore’s depiction of the child tribe is utterly civilized. Of course, all that may change when freckles and red hair combine with glasses, braces, boobs, and zits. Hang in there, Freckleface!

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Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Murray_skippyMurray, Paul. Skippy Dies. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Genre: literary fiction (for adults) (I argue: YA contemporary)

Summary: Howard (the coward) returns to teach at his alma mater, Seabrook College. Howard never achieved the fame and fortune that is expected of Seabrook graduates. Instead, he muddles through his life and relationships burdened with the secrets that would surely tarnish Seabrook’s reputation if they ever came to light. Before the school year is out, Howard is snagged into yet another school tragedy when the boy everyone calls “Skippy” mysteriously dies.

Critique: This book was not marketed as a cross-over that adults and young adults might enjoy, and I think that was a mistake. I lived in Ireland when this book came out. I saw teens gorging on the 600+ pages. I saw them swarm the author at readings around Dublin as if he were the new Rowling or Meyers!

The text plays (timidly) with fonts to indicate cell phone ring tones, hit songs, and other quirks of digitized teenage life. The point of view cunningly shifts from close third to second person whenever characters slip from sober to high. And Murray’s humor mingles the wry, dark, and tragic. Don’t be surprised if you laugh in the midst of bitter tears.

This book was short- and long-listed for nearly every UK book award, including the Mann Booker. And it’s no surprise why: rather than pooh-pooh the trials of teenage life and love, this book employs string theory, Irish folklore, and the complex mathematics to capture this devastatingly explosive time in all our lives. Suddenly, blazingly, staggeringly, readers realize the human heart is a complicated realm, regardless of your age! Where Murray might have been timid with fonts, he is unreservedly bold with contemporary issues like bullying, sexual molestation, and drug abuse.

Indeed, this book is not for the timid. No. It is for the brave parents, teens, and other readers who acknowledge life is not a safe haven, but a savage garden of good and evil, tragic and jolly. Those who enjoy John Green and A. S. King will adore Skippy Dies.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry

Ferry-stickstoneFerry, Beth. Stick and Stone. Illus. Tom Lichtenheld. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: A stick and a stone become fast friends after an unfortunate name-calling incident.

Critique: This story puts a clever twist on the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. It stars the iconic stick and stone who form a solid friendship when stick defends stone from a mean, name-calling pine cone. Unfortunately, despite this excellent set-up, the bulk of the story does not document how to withstand bullying, criticism, or name calling. It catalogs all the fun two friends can have swinging, sitting on the beach, or playing games. The plot takes a turn towards the random when a hurricane blows Stick into a boggy puddle. Stone rescues Stick — a clear reversal of how Stick first saved Stone from name-calling. The heroics are worth a cheer, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the themes would have been better served if Stone had been put in a position to rescue himself from another bully. Or, what if Stick had stand up for himself? It’s one thing to stand up for others, but standing up for yourself is a skill many of fail to master even in adulthood.

The result feels like a missed opportunity to grapple with huge facets of childhood and healthy development.

Nonetheless, Ferry tells this story with surprising frugality. The text is compact, succinct, and easy to read aloud. There are times when the need to make the rhyme work throws consistency out the window — verb tenses shift from past to present, or formerly complete sentences break into fragments.

Luckily, Lichtenheld’s illustrations are richly consistent! Working in pencil, watercolor, and colored pencil on Mi-Teites paper, the artist delivers a textured world that readers want to touch. He equips Stick and Stone with endearing facial expressions and highly emotive physical gestures — no easy task when anthropomorphising twigs and rocks. On paper, the characters come alive. They break no bones, but they will warm your heart!