Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

All Hail Those Delightful Quirky Families

Review by Colleen Mondor

Every now and again I discover a whole new literary family to fall in love with. These eccentric families are probably a knee-jerk reaction to my own all-too-typical (and utterly all-American) broken-family-complicated-step-relatives-don't-even-ask-me-what-the-holidays-were-like kind of childhood. I never wanted to be part of a Norman Rockwell painting (heaven forbid) but dearly wished I had come from a place that was a little more fun and creative and, well, funky, then how I ended up.

Oh, do feel sorry for this product of a classic middle class upbringing.

So, in search of what I did not have then, I embrace the quirky family books now. Maybe I'm looking for new parenting role models; ways to make myself into the fun and original kind of parent that I've always been looking for. (I swear—I had perfectly normal and lovely parents; I just can't shake the thought that I missed something in all that divorced, not speaking to each other, happily never after anti-Ozzie and Harrietness.) Or maybe these stories just make me smile. And really, who needs a better excuse for reading than that?

The Brambles are a family in search of a housekeeper in the worst sort of way. Dad is a scientist with a new government job. Mom is having a brand new baby and Adam and his little sister and brother really need to stay out of the way. Enter Mrs. Korngold, one of those most proper sorts of British ladies who seem capable of not only cooking some amazing gourmet meals but also sometimes affecting the space time continuum (seriously!) The first sign of danger in their contented life is a big black car that shows up the very day the Brambles arrive at their new home, and the fact that it just might have disappeared into a bottomless hole in the road.

Or maybe it didn't—Adam isn't too sure what happened that first day. But author Patricia Miles makes it clear in The Gods in Winter that there are lots of unexplained things going on around dear Mrs. Bramble. Sometimes it's just a tiny thing, like getting out of an illegal parking spot before the traffic cop notices, but when it comes to annoying cousin Crispin, well, after what happens to him, he probably doesn't see things as quite so innocent. Adam and his sister Lottie start to put two and two together (especially after Mrs. Bramble has a couple of very exotic visitors) and then do the thing that makes the perfect sense (and hardly ever happens in YA literature)—they tell their parents what they think. And then, shock of shocks, their parents actually listen and believe just enough in their children to not dismiss their rather wild conclusion. They take a step back and think about it and tell the kids they need a bit more to go on—and then lots of exciting things happen and everybody finds all kinds of things to believe that they never imagined. Happy endings are had by all (except maybe Crispin) and the Brambles carry on in the best possible quirky-family tradition. They just keep loving each other and believing in the impossible, which is what makes them one of my new favorite families.

It should be noted that I am not the only fan of Patricia Miles and the Brambles. This new edition has an afterword by Tamora Pierce who writes, "A novel like this, one that grips my imagination, when I have read so many books—I think it will grip you too." I agree wholeheartedly and I'm so glad that Ms. Pierce persevered in passing the good word along on The Gods in Winter and ultimately saw it find its home with the very cool folks at Front Street.

I have been a fan of the Casson family since the first book in the series, Saffy's Angel. It is important that new readers start with Saffy and then read Indigo's Star before enjoying the two latest entries, Permanent Rose and Caddy Ever After. They are all charming reads in the best sort of not-the-slightest-bit-sticky-sweet tradition and promise delightful hours spent with a family that, while certainly not perfect, knows a happy life is one well lived. The Cassons are eccentric and witty and the sort of people who throw themselves out there—who take chances when it comes to friendships and the stirrings of their hearts. More than anything though, they are never boring and author Hilary McKay's novels about them never disappoint.

In Permanent Rose, the youngest Casson is still bothered by the departure of her friend Tom for New York and finds herself falling into a habit of petty shoplifting. Saffy and her best friend Sarah are set on finding her biological father (Saffy's mother is dead when the series begins, and she was adopted by her aunt and uncle and raised like a sibling with her cousins.) Caddy is still engaged and still at odds over whether or not Michael is the perfect one and Indigo, sensible Indigo, is beginning a friendship with a former bully and holding counsel for Rose and everyone else. One thing happens after another, mostly while their mother is off in her shed making art and forgetting to cook dinner and Rose is painting the walls and Caddy is tending to her vast collection of guinea pigs. Nothing happens that is desperate or depressing or the slightest bit fantastic, but the story is compelling and irresistible all the same.

As way of comparison, the Cassons remind me of modern-day Austins or Murrays from the wonderful Madeleine L'Engle. Things are a bit messier on the home front for them—Bill Casson is also an artist, but lives in London because his wife Eve's much more disorganized (dare I say Bohemian) attitude about life is an endless source of frustration that he simply cannot bear. In Permanent Rose he has taken up with Samantha, who everyone finds to be perfectly suitable and, more importantly, infinitely tolerant of Bill's stuffiness (or so it seems.) In other words, even though the parents are separated, there are no flame wars to be found here. There are just a lot of laughs, a few concerns and no small amount of working things out in ways both outlandish and unexpected. Happily ever after reigns in the Cassons' world; it's just not always the sort of ever after readers will expect.

In the most recent book in the series, Caddy Ever After the story is told from altering perspectives, a new tack on the part of author McKay. The big news is that Caddy and Michael have broken up, Saffy is dating someone new and Sarah and Indigo might be something more than friends—maybe. These changes all result in many opportunities for McKay to muse on young adult life, such as the profound quality of this assessment (from Indigo's point of view): "Peer pressure is an amazing thing. Sometimes it is like a storm-force wind. If you stand against it, you are liable to be flattened. That is why most people just let themselves be swept along." Or even better, consider how Saffy views a slightly sinister night: "That afternoon I realized something about darkness. It is stronger than light. Light can push the dark back, but it cannot get rid of it. The dark stays. It hangs about under leaves. It runs beside stone walls. It waits in doorways. When the sun goes down it leaks out of these places like a spreading stain."

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? That way with words, on subjects as bland as peer pressure and as lush as the dark, elevates all of McKay's books far above the standard young adult fare. On the one hand in this title, the question is whether or not Caddy will marry another young man—the decidedly wrong young man—but really there is ever so much more to be found in Caddy Ever After as well as the other Casson family books. The young people are smart and deep and inquisitive, the adults equal parts responsible and daffy and the action remarkably ordinary, although the circumstances always seem a bit unique. I am hard pressed to see just how, exactly, my own childhood differed so much from Saffy's or Rose's, and yet clearly it did. In some fundamental and remarkable fashion, I was missing something, and in the Cassons, even at the much older age of 38, finally I have found it.

In sharp contrast to the minor disturbances in the Casson household, in Linda Lowery's Truth and Salsa thirteen-year old Hayley Flynn finds it hard to believe her family will ever be okay again. Her father has left and after a long battle with depression, her mother's sadness now threatens to overwhelm her. In the book's opening pages, readers learn that Mrs. Flynn is "broken." Hayley explains, "She's like a house whose windows got shattered by flying bricks. Now cold air whips right through, freezing the warm corners inside." It has been decided that she needs to spend several months in a depression treatment center and because of that, Hayley must go off to Mexico and her grandmother. That's when the story takes off in all sorts of splendid directions.

First up, Hayley's mother is not seen as a victim, nor does she disappear from the narrative just because she is ill. After Hayley leaves Michigan she continues to call her mother and update her on her life and by the story's end her mother manages to play a big part in bringing about a happy ending for Hayley's newfound friends. Before all of that happens though, Hayley moves into her new tower bedroom, "Rapunzel's penthouse, " eats a lot of salsa and works on becoming a better artist. As it turns out, her grandmother lives in a circular haunted house (a small mystery that allows for a few nice plot twists) has a papier-mache skeleton named Cynthia in her entryway and keeps a jungle growing in her backyard. She encourages Hayley to have fun—a lot of fun—and together they end up as extras in a film, participate in more than one splendid fiesta and embark on a trip to see migrating Monarch butterflies. In every way that matters, she gives Hayley a safe place to land as her mother rebuilds her life. More importantly, she also insists that the teen enjoy herself and that is the lesson that Hayley needs to learn the most.

For most of the story, Truth and Salsa is about Hayley's adventures with her grandmother and new friend Lili and it is particularly wonderful to discover an older character who manages to so much fun to read. There are some serious developments in the final chapters however, concerning Lili's migrant-worker father. The story continues to maintain its upbeat attitude, but Hayley and her grandmother end up having to marshal forces on both sides of the border to send him and his co-workers much-needed help. This makes the book incredibly timely and probably one of the more accessible ways for young adults to learn about some of the difficulties facing migrant workers (both legal and illegal) in the U.S. It will broaden their minds when it comes to the current discussion on border control, while not preventing readers from laughing about Hayley and shaking their heads over her grandmother's mango salsa.

I am sure that when Poli Delano wrote his memoir When I Was a Boy Neruda Called Me Policarpo the marketing crew at Groundwood books knew they had something special that was also going to be a tough title to sell. It's not that the book isn't great—it really is an artistic sort of Addams Family story (light on gothic charm, heavy on Mexican whimsy), but who will know to look for it? Fans of Neruda would likely miss it in the children's section and few young readers will recognize the poet's name. But—but if you consider this just a story about a very funny family and their longtime friends, as seen through the eyes of young Poli, then it raises all sorts of possibilities for middle grade readers. Manuel Monroy's charming pictures of the Delanos and Nerudas complement the text perfectly, especially when illustrating the "famous diving Tarzans of Acapulco" or Neruda looking for bugs "under rocks and fallen tree trunks." One gets the feeling that Delano's upbringing was part revolutionary moments of fervent patriotism—as when a fist fight broke out with some Germans at a restaurant in Cuernavaca—and part comic insanity—as when Neruda bought a bag of cooked grasshoppers and then dipped them into lime and "spicy powder" as a treat one day at the market in Oaxaca. (This is also where we learn that Diego Rivera claimed to have once eaten human flesh, and that, according to him, "the tastiest bit is the meaty part of the hand.")

If children's writer and illustrator William Joyce put Wilbur Robinson's adventures in the 1940s among a group of genteel South Americans living in Mexico, then it is entirely certain that they would mirror the antics of the Delano and Neruda clans. There are caviar and afternoon aperitifs but also bugs and monkeys (maybe for lunch) and a childhood in the close proximity of one of the world's greatest poets. Delano's memoir might be hard to classify, but it will certainly bring Neruda a few new fans (the inclusion of a poem between each chapter is quite brilliant). Whether they appreciate him for hunting spiders or writing about love is immaterial; at least they will love him, they will know him enough to want to know more.

For the younger end of the age spectrum, there are several family titles I've read recently that all impressed me as both fun and smart. First up is Alexander McCall Smith's The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean. Smith is most well known for his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series and while the jury is still out as to whether or not those books really qualify as mysteries or not, I have loved every one and could care less about the genre classification. Harriet is a mystery in the manner of his adult books—the mysterious part is not the point, all the folks involved and how they get along is really where the story is at. Nine-year-old Harriet lives with her absent minded inventor father and finds out in the first pages of this outing (the second in the series, but it's not necessary to read them in order) that she has five aunts her father never told her about. In rapid order, the story of their childhood separation is shared over buttered scones and Harriet becomes determined to find Veronica, Harmonica, Majolica, Japonica and Thessalonika. Lots of crazy coincidences follow, along with some serious fun and of course it has the happy family ending the reader expects, but it's such a jolly trip getting there (and I do mean jolly in the best sense of the word), that any reader will just go along for the ride. The aunts are all clichés, but quirky clichés—they perform just outside of what you expect and it is that cheeky way of keeping the story fresh that makes it such a pleasure to read. Young people who start with Harriet Bean will happily find themselves reading about Precious Ramotswe as teenagers and thus Smith will keep his fans with him from grade school until forever. I can't fault him for that, or for his willingness to reach out to young readers. Harriet Bean is such a well packaged story, with such pitch-perfect illustrations by Laura Rankin, that it deserves a certain amount of praise. Smith is clearly good at what he does; all the better that now parents and children can enjoy him at the same time.

In Travels With My Family by Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel, the young narrator is frustrated beyond measure by his parents' insistence that vacations not include Disney World and motels with swimming pools but "new adventures in some out-of-the-way place." They avoid the interstate in favor of "bumpy back roads" and load up with everything from bicycles on the roof to their very angry cat, Miro, shoved into a cat-carrying box. Initially it seems like the book is a throwback to the 1950s and "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet," but then the family lands on the coast of Maine right as Hurricane Bob comes bearing down on New England. Here's what our poor narrator must then endure: "'Hurricanes like it hot,' my father told us. He was always explaining useful bits of knowledge to us. 'They're tropical storms. The water here is too cold for them. Nobody even swims in this water.'" Our narrator is not so sure about that and as the neighbors start boarding up and investing in duct tape and batteries, he begins to have serious doubts in dear old Dad.

How things turn out in Maine, well, you can imagine, but the parents are undeterred in their quest for adventure and next head down south to Tybee Island (minus Miro, who seems a bit traumatized by his hurricane experience and is handed off to Grandma), then on to the alligator swamps in Florida (so very close to Disney!) and after several other less than successful journeys in a westerly direction they nearly meet their end in Slaughter Canyon Cave. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) It's all very funny and the young narrator is quite properly frustrated with his mother and father and their insistence on the power of an authentic experience. You have to appreciate how hard they are willing to keep trying to bypass the average and everyday, and laugh your head off as one mishap after another upsets their finely-laid plans. Consider these guys the hippie Addams clan and jump on board for the ride.

Finally, there are two books about two girls, both of whom are facing some rather challenging moments. Isabella and her mother have had to move into her grandmother's trailer in Isabella's Above-Ground Pool, a problem made all the worse by her grandmother's at-home beauty parlor. Isabella is determined to have an above-ground pool as her ticket to popularity and more importantly, a place to cool off that doesn't smell of home permanents (yuck). Things take a serious turn when her mother's job at the Longnose Gum factory is suddenly in jeopardy and Isabella has to come up with a whole new flavor to save the town's jobs. There's also a car wash and a twister and the word "criminy" shows up. Isabella's mom is tough and smart, her grandmother is a hoot (literally) and in the end the above-ground pool ends up being about a lot more than our heroine ever planned.

Meanwhile, in Grace Lin's The Year of the Dog, Pacy has a major identity crisis on her hands and is determined to figure out just what she is supposed to do with her life. Mind you, she's still in elementary school, but this whole finding-yourself thing can be quite the big deal, no matter what your age.

Interspersed throughout Pacy's adventures (from science experiments to the school play) are delightful stories told by her mother about childhood back in China. These help to frame Pacy's life and explain why her family traditions are so important and just what the Year of the Dog can mean to her. (I especially liked the story about the grandmothers waiting outside the school.) Ultimately she does go on a very significant trip of self discovery, and learns that what she is really good at is finding herself, something the Brambles and Cassons and Hayley Flynn would all understand. And while Pacy's story takes place in a Chinese-American family in New Hartford, New York, it is clear from my reading that knowing who you are and having a family that knows that as well is something universally felt, in England, Mexico, Texas or the backseat of a very hot car. It's all about that important level of acceptance that all of us crave, even the ones who deny it (especially them). After all, in the end your family is where you find it, with the ones who know you and love you the best. Here's hoping that we all find a bit of home and family in our lives, and the permission and acceptance to be just as bloody well quirky as we would like to be.


The Gods in Winter
by Patricia Miles
Front Street (2005) 147 pp.
ISBN 1932425470

Caddy Ever After
by Hilary McKay
Margaret McElderry (2006) 218 pp.
ISBN 1416909303

Truth and Salsa
by Linda Lowery
Peachtree Publishers 176 pp.
ISBN 1561453668

The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean
by Alexander McCall Smith
Bloomsbury (2005) 117 pp.
ISBN 1582349754

Travels with my Family
by Marie Louise Gay
Groundwood Books (2006) 117 pp.
ISBN 0888996888

When I Was Young Neruda Called Me Policarpo
by Poli Delano
Groundwood (2006) 86 pp.
ISBN 0888997264

Isabella's Above-Ground Pool
by Alice Mead
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2006) 105 pp.
ISBN 0374336172

The Year of the Dog
by Grace Lin
Little Brown (2006) 134 pp
ISBN 0316060003


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