From the bookshelf

Fine writing shines in dark tales for youths

Posted: Thursday, July 07, 2005


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  "Adam Cox Meets the Cracklecrunch for Lunch," Text by Walter Benesch and Illustrations by Sandy Jamieson

"Dancing at the Odinachka," by Kirkpatrick Hill

Dancing at the Odinochka

By Kirkpatrick Hill

Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books

261 pages


$15.95 (hard cover)


"Looking for Normal," by Betty Monthei

Looking for Normal

By Betty Monthei

Published by HarperCollins

185 pages


$15.99 (hard cover)


"Upstream," by Melissa Lion


By Melissa Lion

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

160 pages


$15.95 (hard cover)


"Adam Cox Meets the Cracklecrunch for Lunch," Text by Walter Benesch and Illustrations by Sandy Jamieson

Adam Cox Meets the Cracklecrunch for Lunch

By Walter Benesch; illustrated by Sandy Jamieson

Published by Nonetheless Press

32 pages


$24.95 (hard cover) includes audio CD

Alaska inspires great books for readers who fall into the vague category publishers call "young adult." Several recent titles from that category share dark subject matter and bright storytelling.

Kirkpatrick Hill, from Fairbanks, has won awards and acclaim for books such as "Toughboy and Sister." Her new book, "Dancing at the Odinochka," traces an eventful decade in the life of young Erinia Pavaloff, a Creole girl in Nulato in the 1860s.

Erinia's father is a Russian-American fur trader and her mother Athabascan. Her sheltered life at the isolated trading post ("odinochka" in Russian) changes, first as a troop from the United States arrives to work on a telegraph line and later, when Russia sells the colony.

"How could Russia have given them away? Why did she abandon them? All those miles of lovely tundra and rivers and tall spruce trees. Why didn't Russia want them anymore?" she agonized after getting the news.

Inspired by the real Erinia's brief memoir, Hill immersed herself in information about the time and place and created a convincing portrait of a vanished way of life. The author is particularly skilled at

depicting the meeting of distinct cultures — Athabascan, Russian and American.

The book is listed as suitable for ages 9 to 14; the subject matter ranges from innocent games to murder. It begins when Erinia is 6 and ends when she is 15. The first half describes life at old Nulato, with the plot action concentrated in the second half. Impatient readers may get bored with the first chapters, while those who relish a sense of place, such as in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, may love the tale's evocative background.

Hill is a masterful writer. For readers of any age interested in Alaska history, this book is a treasure.

"Looking for Normal," is not about Alaska, but the author, Betty Monthei, is another Fairbanksan.

The subject matter, both blunt and nuanced, deals with an extremely dysfunctional family. Unlike Hill's gradual buildup, Monthei's novel starts with a shocker. The narrator, 12-year-old Annie Richards, is pulled out of school along with her little brother, Ted, and turned over to the maternal grandparents they barely know. Their grandmother breaks the news that their abusive father has just murdered their mother and killed himself.

"The world spins in a whirling circle then slams to a sudden stop," Annie says. "Grandma shrinks as if I was looking through the wrong end of binoculars, then grows large again. I can't move, not one finger, and I feel like my head is floating above my body, and then I can't feel anything but empty space where I used to be."

The rest of the book deals with the anger, fear, loneliness and grief Annie confronts as a new orphan and in flashbacks of her parents' marriage. Making the situation even more difficult is the grandmother, who rather than cherishing the bereaved children, subjects them to her toxic relationship with her son-in-law.

This makes for bleak reading, but Annie, by sheltering her brother and penetrating her grandfather's reserve, finally reaches a point where true healing is possible.

Monthei has written a harsh but ultimately hopeful tale that packs a real wallop.

The publisher describes "Looking for Normal" as suitable for ages 10 and up. It is not a light read, but offers insight and comfort to readers facing life's tragedies.

"Upstream," by Melissa Lion, also deals with loss and grief but in a very different way. Martha "Marty" Powers starts her senior year of high school devastated by the accidental death of her boyfriend, Steven.

She was with him when it happened, on what had been a romantic camping trip. Memories haunt and torment her as she tries to put her shattered life back together.

" [T]here are so many other moments I am forced to live over and over. The moment I looked down and somehow Steven was in my lap, his eyes staring up at the wide blue sky above us, his blood warming my jeans ... . And the moment hours before, waking up with him next to me, breathing in my ear, promising me beauty for the rest of my life."

Lion, who lives in California, has relatives in Alaska and set her story in the Homer area. Her writing resonates with a love of the landscape, and the sense of place plays a major role in the plot.

"Upstream" is an achingly touching portrait of first love turned tragic. Despite the sad premise, the story sparkles with wit and wisdom. Marty engages our sympathy from the first, and we cheer for the loving family and community that help her climb from depression to bittersweet triumph.

The book is listed as suitable for ages 12 and older. It seems most appropriate for older teens, college students and even adults. Parents beware that, although never explicit, it refers rather casually to extramarital sex.

Lion writes beautifully, evoking intense emotions from ecstasy to heartbreak. "Upstream" is a poetic tribute to love, in many forms, lost and found.

Now for something completely different. "Adam Cox Meets the Cracklecrunch for Lunch" looks, at first glance, like a picture book for tykes. But this tale would send most moppets screaming from the room.

In verse by University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Walter Benesch, it narrates the misadventures of Adam Cox, a wicked, wicked lad who abuses his family and terrorizes his teachers:

"For all the things that he had done,

They made him spend four years in one,

Eight and eighty teachers hired,

Replacing each one as she tired!

And when he went to second grade,

They had some special handcuffs made,

A cage, a collar, and lots of tape

To hold the aggressive little ape!"

His wicked ways put him in the path of the Cracklecrunch, a luridly awful monster that eats children. Their confrontation is the climax of the story.

Benesch writes with gruesome relish and avoids the niceties of conventional moralizing. The result is delightful word play that comes across like a combination of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" and Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinies."

Sandy Jamieson's illustrations are equally exuberant and macabre.

This can be a fun read-aloud for the right child and comes with a recording of the author reading it. Hard to categorize, its audience depends more on personality than age.

My own child loved it and immediately began reading it aloud to all within earshot. But she's 22.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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