Culture > Books

Higher power trip

Books | Controversy surrounds latest Newbery book

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

For a children's book author, winning the Newbery is the brass ring. Awarded each January by a special committee of the American Library Association, that gold medal on a cover means that sales immediately jump by 100,000 and the book will never go out of print. With so much at stake, every year's winner is subject to protest: Why that book? It's too depressing, or too boring, or just not that great.

When The Higher Power of Lucky appeared last November, it generated good reviews but not a great deal of buzz: a well-written, reasonably engrossing little story about a young girl named Lucky who has suffered severe losses and is trying to find stability in her life. That basic formula could define almost all the books that come up for serious Newbery consideration, so when the award was announced, many librarians and interested parties were scratching their heads. Now, which one was it . . . ?

Soon, however, the crayon hit the fan. An elementary school teacher in Colorado posted notice on a professional mailing list that she would not be reading the book aloud to her fourth-graders because of this sentence: ". . . he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum." Why include that particular word (and I don't mean "rattlesnake")? How was she going to explain it without turning reading hour into sex-ed class?

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The post generated a firestorm of comment spreading far beyond its intended audience; even The New York Times took notice. Most responders supported the novel, with generous use of that other four-letter word, "censorship."

The anatomy flap obscures deeper problems with the book, namely ambivalence and incoherence. Lucky, an eavesdropper on countless 12-step meetings, is searching for her own Higher Power. Her mother has died in a horrific accident and her father is so unconnected he doesn't even identify himself when he shows up. Her guardian is his first wife, a French woman of no relation or previous acquaintance. Unlikely circumstances combine in a resolution as murky as the dust storm that whips up the story's climax. What, exactly, is the Higher Power? Science, friendship, love-or, as the title suggests, Lucky herself?

Contrived eccentricity and pop-psych conclusions prove an unbeatable combination when angling for a Newbery. And the controversy won't hurt sales a bit. But young readers, who could use some clarity in literature, won't find it here.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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