Review: Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

anybody shining

Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Released September 23, 2014.

12-year-old Arie Mae loves living in the Appalachian Mountains.  She is so proud of her mother, who sings the old songs like an angel and her father who loves modern and traditional music.  All that is missing in her life is a best friend.  Arie Mae starts writing letters to her cousin who lives far away in Baltimore and whose mother had grown up in the mountains.  After sending letter after letter, Arie Mae gets no response, but continues writing anyway, sharing the details of her life and adventures.  Then Arie Mae gets another chance to make a new friend.  A group of children from Baltimore are coming to the mountains along with the song catcher ladies, who will record the traditional songs and who have also created a new school for people to learn traditional crafts that can then be sold.  Arie Mae knows right away that she won’t be friends with the bossy girl who looks down on the mountain children.  But there is a boy with a limp who loves to hear the traditional stories and refuses to let his limp stop him from exploring.  His mother warns Arie Mae that he should not exert himself much because of his health, but nothing is going to slow either of them down now that they are friends and there are woods and mountains to discover together. 

Dowell writes with a beauty that brings the Appalachians to life.  She captures the lifestyle of these people without flinching from the poverty that they live in, but also revealing the incredible simplicity of this life that makes it possible.  She shows the tension between traditional ways of life and the modern world in a very developed way, where the outsiders are the ones who want the traditions to continue and their lives to be undisturbed by modern conventions.  This is a beautiful novel about the power of writing, the question of whether those living in the mountains need saving, and the quest for a best friend.

Arie Mae is a wonderful character.  She is the lens through which we see the mountains and it is her love for them that appears on the page.  So does her voice, which is clarion clear and written with the rhythm of the mountains entwined in it.  Here is a passage from page 22 of the e-galley where she writes to her cousin about how writing has changed her:

I have found that since I started writing letters to you I’ve been paying close attention to all the doings and comings and goings of a day.  It’s like saving secrets to share with a friend late in the evening, when the lights are dimmed but for a single lantern hanging on a neighbor’s porch across the holler.

These are the sorts of images shared throughout the book, sprinkled throughout.  The setting of the mountains is as much a character on the page as Arie Mae is.  And it is brought to life just as vividly.

Strongly written, with beautiful passages, this novel for middle graders invites them to spend time with Arie Mae in the mountains and to join in the adventures.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

Review: Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey

beetle boy

Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey

Charlie Porter never expected to have a girlfriend who cared this much for him.  Enough to bring him into her home after he had surgery on his Achilles tendon and care for him while he could not walk.  But now Clara is starting to ask pointed questions about Charlie’s childhood and his family, questions that Charlie does not want to answer.  Clara knows that Charlie was once billed as the world’s youngest author and sold story books about beetles.  She also knows that he has nightmares every night that usually involve screaming.  She doesn’t know though that Charlie’s dreams are filled with huge black beetles or that the books he sold were not really his own stories.  She doesn’t know that his mother abandoned him, that his father forced him to sell books, that his brother hated him then and still does for abandoning him.  She knows so little, but can Charlie open up and let her see the truth about him without her leaving him entirely?

Willey paints a tragic and painful look at a young man continuing to wrestle with the demons of his childhood.  At 18-years-old, Charlie continues to dream about his past and to live as if it is his future as well.  The book shows how difficult dysfunctional and neglectful childhoods can be to escape, even after one has physically left if behind.  Willey manages to create a past for Charlie that does not become melodramatic.  She makes it painful enough but not too dramatically so. 

Charlie is a very interesting protagonist.  He is not a hero, because he is too damaged to be called that.  He is certainly a survivor, wrestling with things that will not let him go or let him progress.  He is frightened, shy, and can’t see a future for himself.  He is a tragic figure, one that readers will root for entirely, but also one that drips with anger, shame and sadness.  One of the best parts of the novel is the end, which does not end neatly or give a clear path for Charlie.  The ending has hope, but continues the complexity of the issues that Charlie faces.  Perfectly done.

A brilliant and powerful look at neglect and abuse and the long shadow it casts over a life.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley.