Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

Are you kidding me!
Holy Batman
This is a GREAT book!

Reading this book is a profound experience. I have read it twice - something I rarely do. I was lucky to have access to an advanced reader copy earlier in the year. It wasn't even in book form. I read the pages, almost obsessively, over two days. Last week Lenny's Book of Everything arrived in bookshops. I rushed out to buy a copy and over the last two days I have lived in the world of Lenny, Davey, Cindy and Mrs Caspar all over again.

The structure of this book is just perfect. Cindy Spink wins her family a set of Burrell's Build-it-at-Home Encyclopedia set.

"Welcome to the Spink family. My name is Cindy and I have two children, Lenore and David. Their father died nearly a year ago. ... My children are the Love of My Life. They are both beautiful although Davey is very big for his age. I've taken him to the doctor and they are going to figure out why. Lenore is so good to her brother and so very smart in third grade."

Between 1969 and 1977 the parts of the encyclopedia arrive from A to Z one part at a time. Exploration of each book part when it arrives provides light relief from the heavy themes explored in this powerful and honest story. I also loved and laughed at the letters send from Martha Brent the General Sales Manager at Burrell's Publishing Company.  I like to think that Karen Foxlee really enjoyed her research for these sections. Here are Lenny's comments when "B" arrives:

"Bats for starters: fringe-lipped and spear-nosed and bonneted. Leaf-chinned and bulldog and vampire. Bacteria: four kinds. Badgers and baobab trees. Several coloured pages of birds which were brilliant. On each page, we chose and ordered our favourites. My ultimate favourite was the meadowlark because it reminded me of open places. Davey's ultimate favourite was the golden eagle."

Mum knows something is wrong when Davey is born. "It's not a hurting kind of feeling, Just a something-will-happen feeling.' 'A good thing or bad thing?' I asked. "It might be good or bad or somewhere in between,' she said. 'We'll just have to wait and see."

They watch as Davey grows taller sometimes even overnight. Mrs Caspar, their neighbour, tries to help. She is happy to babysit Davey when Cindy is at work. There are monthly phone conversations with Nanny Flora who lives far away and the kindness of Lenny's school friends CJ and Mathew Milford. Eventually Cindy takes Davey to see a specialist. There are treatments and surgery but sadly, while these work for a while, eventually the awful tumors come back.

One aspect of this story that absolutely warmed my heart was the way other kids reacted to Davey at school. After a very bad start when Cindy tried to enroll him at the local preschool I was so worried about his first day in Grade One. By now age six he is nearly five feet tall. He does look odd so it was wonderful to read that the teacher was kind and that the other kids totally accepted Davey.  His warm smile and lovely ways charmed them all.

The other wonderful aspect of this story is the honesty of Lenny herself. She deeply loves her brother but she also worries about him, she suffers with embarrassment in public and at school, and she is sometimes very annoyed with him - all perfectly understandable and real emotions. How will she survive when he is gone?

The cast of secondary characters in this book are also simply fabulous.  Here are some descriptions.

Mrs Caspar (their Hungarian neighbour who shares her widely vivid dreams)
"She had two Pomeranians with marmalade-coloured coats named Karl and Karla. The apartment smelled of them, and also ashtrays, filled with white cigarette filters, each decorated with a ring of peach lipstick. Her apartment was a kaleidoscope of tan crocheted doilies and pumpkin-coloured throw rugs; even Mrs Caspar's orange beehive, which sat a little askew on her head, matched the decor."

Mr King (he owns the fruit shop and lusts after Cindy)
"Mr King was as short as my mother ... (he) had a little round belly like he'd swallowed a baby. His satiny shirt strained over it ... He looked at my mother like he could suck her up through a straw, just like and that, and she would be all his."

Mr Petersburg (reclusive and mysterious neighbour who writes to prisoners)
"Mr Petersburg looked deeply embarrassed to have been discovered. Frightened too. He bent down to pick up his letter. ... He wore his powder-blue suit and his white hair was combed back severely over his white skull. The letters trembled in his very white hand."

I have been thinking about the evolution of Karen Foxlee.  I enjoyed Ophelia and the Marvelous boy but I did take quite a long time to finish it. A Most Magical Girl was a fabulous book and certainly worth of a Kirkus Star review. It was short listed for our CBCA 2017 award but really should have been the winner in my view. Now we have a completely different and even better book - Lenny's Book of Everything.

Read some reviews by young readers. You can read the first 38 pages on the publisher web site and find a link to a set of brilliant teachers notes. Here is an interview with the author. If you loved Wonder then look for Lenny's Book of Everything.  I also recommend Wish upon a Unicorn by Karen Hesse and A corner of the Universe by Ann M Martin.

Take a close look at the cover.  The eagle image is made of up a collage. The cover uses images from the Golden Book Encyclopedia. Read about the design of the cover. Here is Volume 8 which features beetles on the cover in honour of Lenny who loves beetles.

Image source: http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/wrapping-sentences-around-things/

Lenny's Book of Everything simply MUST make our CBCA 2019 short list - yes it is that good! If I haven't convinced you to read this book take a look at this insightful and brilliant review by Dimity Powell. You can read how Karen's real life experience led her to write this story of Lenny, Davey and Cindy.

If you want to read some thoughts about death and loss in Middle Grade Fiction take a look at this post by US Teacher-Librarian Holly Mueller.

Here is the US cover - I like it. Do you?

A tough, tender and beautiful piece of work that left me aching - Glenda Millard

You come to care so deeply for the characters that you want to move into their little flat and look after them. ... Told with piercing honest and clarity of a child, this story holds life lessons for everyone. W is for wonderful, and that is Lenny's Book - unforgettable - Anna Fienberg

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