This is a book about taking joy in the special things about yourself and your family, even if they aren't conventionally perfect. Zoe Elias is in fifth grade. She has a workaholic mother (a state Controller) and a father who has difficulty coping with the world outside of his home. Zoe returns to school after the summer and finds that her best friend has abandoned her for someone cooler, and become consumed by lip gloss, CDs, and trendy clothes. What Zoe wants is to grow up to be a famous pianist, and play at Carnegie Hall. She dreams of elegant black concert pianos and hushed silences. Her reality, however, is somewhat different from her expectations (and involves a flamboyant organ).
There is much to like about this book. The writing is deceptively simple, with short paragraphs, and plenty of white space. At one point there is a chapter that only has one six-word sentence on the page. This is not a book that would intimidate an eight year old. And yet, Linda Urban manages to pack multiple levels of meaning into every sentence. She is a master of show, don't tell, and of presenting fully realized, three-dimensional characters. Her word selection is so perfect that the book almost feels like a verse novel (though it clearly isn't). Here is an example:
The senior center had one piano, and it was not grand. It was an almost-upright. It leaned to one side. I guessed it had been donated by a school because there were initials carved into its legs, and if you lifted the yellow scarf off the top, you could read all about a Mrs. Pushkin who smelled like fish. The bench was bowed from years of supporting senior citizen backsides. (Page 10)
I love: "It was an almost-upright". Here is another example that shows the short, poetic paragraphs:
"When the balcony people first get to Carnegie Hall, they can't see the stage. All they see is a huge velvet curtain with gold fringe and tassels.
The lights dim.
The curtain rises.
And there is a glossy black grand piano.
Nobody says a word.
They don't even breathe.
They wait." (Page 150)
That refrain of "They wait. They wait." is repeated several times throughout the book. I think it speaks to Zoe's deeper longing concerning being a concert pianist, someone to whom people give undivided attention, and for whom people are willing to wait. Zoe's mother is a very busy woman.
One last quote:
"Me and Mom shake our heads (when friends leave to go the restroom). We have really strong bladders. It is one thing we have in common." (Page 185).
I like this quote because the author is doing so much in a small space. "Me and Mom" gives you a fifth grade voice, doesn't it? It's not "Mom and I", it's "Me and Mom." As it should be. And then "it is one thing we have in common." When I first read this I read it in my head as "it is the one thing we have in common." Zoe and her Mom are very different, but Zoe is pretty matter-of-fact about it.
Zoe is also matter-of-fact about her father's shortcomings. Zoe's Dad clearly has some sort of clinical mental condition, by which can't handle driving, or being in a room with a lot of people, or seeing bright lights. He doesn't work - he stays home and does unusual home-based courses like "Make Friends and Profit While Scrapbooking". Zoe's activities are restricted because he can't drive her places. She worries about him sometimes, but she accepts his limitations, without being ashamed of him, or angry with him, because he is who he is. And he has his strengths as a father, too, of course.
This is an excellent book to give to a kids in the third to sixth grades. It's a relatively easy read, but with a lot of hidden depth that I think the kids on the middle school end (and higher) will be more able to appreciate. For example, there is a painful scene in which Zoe attends a party where she brings the wrong gift and wears the wrong clothes. This will resonate with any reader who has ever had such an experience. (And who hasn't?)
Although A Crooked Kind of Perfect touches on like liking between boys and girls, Zoe's experience is at the very earliest stage of that, in which there's no question of much more than a jumpy feeling in your stomach. And although the narrator of the story is a girl, I think that boys will enjoy this book, too. A boy named Wheeler is a major character (though we can't directly know what he's thinking), and issues with quirky parents transcend gender. Plus there are several scenes involving burping, which are sure crowd-pleasers.
I think that this is a book that will receive some serious consideration from the Newbery committee. It's beautifully written, but also quirky and funny and full of heart. I think that kids will enjoy the story, and will laugh out loud at the funny parts (Zoe goofing around with her Dad, and the ironic contrast between her dreams and her reality). I also think that kids who are right at that transitional age between childhood and adolescence will be able to see themselves in Zoe and Wheeler, and will find this validating. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
This book review was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page, on October 27, 2007.