Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Fine Children's Writer

Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes, Read by Blair Brown, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004

The wonderful children’s book author Kevin Henkes first came to my attention one summer when I found one of his picture books entitled Wemberly Worried. In just a quick paging through the story, I had found the perfect gift for my wife who was herself nervous about going back to school, the big worry among all the little worries of the titular mouse who does indeed worry — about everything.

What charmed me about Wemberly in particular and all of the rest of Henkes’ books is how gentle they are. Not gentle in some kind of namby-pamby nobody ever gets hurt way, unrealistic even remotely in kids’ lives, but gently told stories that radiate through with a very touching, very obvious decency of spirit, though with a dollop of softened melancholy. Feelings get hurt, children tease or misbehave, and sometimes there are tears, but solutions to these small problems have a way of being found with patience and goodwill. Just looking at his illustrations gives me a pleasant feeling.

And while picture books about mice, especially the captivating and wonderful Lilly series, are Henkes’ main claim to fame, he has also written a number of well-received books for somewhat older readers, those verging on joining the poorly defined “young adult” category. Henkes knows how to really portray the childhood mind to perfection, such as ten-year-old Wedge in Two Under Par stubbornly refusing to accept the hand of friendship from his corny stepfather King and how his mother’s marriage to the man ruined his entire world.

Olive’s Ocean has one of the best beginnings and best endings of any young person’s book I’ve read in quite some time. Martha Boyle, our heroine, opens the door one morning to find an old woman on her doorstep. The old woman gives her a page from her daughter Olive’s diary. Olive, we shortly learn, died when she was hit by a car. On this page, Olive writes that she hopes this year she’ll be friends with Martha because “she is the nicest girl in my whole class.” This is the message Martha gets only days before the whole family leaves Wisconsin for a vacation out on Cape Cod.

With her father Dennis, an ex-lawyer now stay-at-home dad working on a poorly progressing novel; her mother Alice (known to Martha sometimes sarcastically as “Ms. Alice Hubbard), a nationally syndicated host of an NPR talk show; Vince, Martha’s brother, older than her by one year exactly to the day; and her two going on three year old little sister Lucy, Martha looks forward to summering in Cape Cod, especially to seeing her grandmother. Affectionately known as Godby (a infantile mispronunciation by a much younger Martha of Grandma B that just stuck), Martha’s grandmother is a tough old bird, one of those refreshing and wise senior citizens who hasn’t fanatically embraced piety merely because they sense their end approaching.

Because in a nutshell, that is much of what Olive’s Ocean is about, death and its uneasy play among the living. Martha is haunted all summer by the specter of Olive and by some of what she reads on that single diary page, haunted to the point of deciding that she too would like to try to write a novel, a novel about Olive.

Of course, since she’s twelve and on vacation, there is so much to interfere with this plan. For example, boys. More specifically the Manning brothers who live not too far from Godby’s house. In between moody solitude in which Martha tries to summon up just what kind of a girl Olive was, tries to get to know her now that it’s far, far too late, in short in between morbid thoughts on death, Martha is jolted into life by her crush on the oldest Manning son, Jimmy.

An aspiring filmmaker, Jimmy is into guerilla film tactics as he works toward piecing together a documentary called “The World is Not What You Think.” His melange features scenes such as his parents fighting while Jimmy provides voiceover commentary along the lines of “Families, aren’t they wonderful” as his dad tries to wrench the camera out of his hands.

The story of Martha and Jimmy’s “romance” veers at times toward a kind of cliché predictability, especially in its complication with younger brother Tate, but Henkes always assuredly steers things away from the commonplace toward a much finer, much more complicated development. He likewise wrings great satisfaction in the sometimes tender, sometimes fractious relationship between Martha and her brother Vince, never settling for unvarying, cheap middle-school obnoxiousness or Precious Moments pap. If there is any kind of weakness here it’s that Vince, as a thirteen year old boy (a redheaded adolescent boy, no less, a species readily acknowledged by the international community as a biohazard), is far more decent than he has any realistic chance of being.

But Henkes also demonstrates a fine ear for adolescent fixations and embarrassments such as these complaints Martha makes against her semi-famous talk show mother: “I can’t believe you said the word ‘crotch’ for the whole world to hear. I’ll never be able to show my face at school again” and “Your laugh is so gross, mom. Can’t you just not laugh, please, if you love me at all?”

Henkes has a knack for evoking childhood’s heights and depths, the petty things that seem so immense and important, the hidden grace of solitude and its torturous pain. At any rate, Henkes’ characters are quite often very fundamentally decent down at their core, even the cruel ones who are just human beings after all, though, like Jimmy here, even his best intentions as author can’t prevent a character’s selfishness or inflexible mean streak.

What makes Henkes’ books stand out is that the lessons the characters learn do actually alter them as characters; they do not learn lessons like in so many other books as a list of Improvements and Lessons to check off in furtherance of some goal they pursue. When Martha comes to a conclusion regarding Olive, it makes her readier to accept Godby’s frailties and allows her a deeper understanding of her father’s resignation toward his calling as a writer and his determination to return to the practice of law.

It also propels her to the book’s very gratifying conclusion, Martha’s decision that gives the book its title. This is perhaps one of the most decent-minded things I’ve read in fiction in a very long time, for children or adults, and it manages that job without ever coming close to forced emotionalism or implausible Wisdom Beyond Her Years deus ex machina contrivances. The concrete reality of the book’s ending has a quiet and sad beauty that is both perfect in a realistic way while bringing perfect closure to the story.

Blair Brown could be the best of all possible choices to read Henkes’ non-picture books as her voice has the same warm tenderness, the same gentle melancholy, the same bedrock of decency as his writing. Throughout the work, she makes Henkes’ world and worldview seem imminently achievable.