When intense buzz or chatter or controversy about a book hits fever pitch, sometimes all it does is turn me off reading it. Simply, I get tired of hearing about it and I go on to read other things instead. I might never come back to the book, or I might wait until all the talk has petered out, and then I will give it a try. That’s what I did with Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky. Don’t get me wrong, for a while all that scrotum talk was interesting and everything, but it just got to the point when I wondered if the book had much more to offer besides fodder for debate around censorship in children’s lit. Oftentimes, when grown ups have lots to say about certain children’s books, it’s can be your first big clue that kids won’t like the books very much. (If you happened to be asleep or on a strict Internet-free diet when all this hullabaloo was going on, you can catch up by reading this Interview with Patron and The International Reading Association). When I saw that the second book in Patron’s series had been released a little while back, I decided that it might be the moment to give Lucky a fair shot. I’m very happy I did, and even happier still to say that I think kids will find both Lucky books accessible and absorbing.
In The Higher Power of Lucky we meet Lucky, who is ten years old, living in the desert town of Hard Pan, California. Lucky has a lot of questions about the world in general and her life in particular and many of them centre around her future. She thinks her guardian, Brigitte, is planning on leaving her for good and heading back to France. Sometimes her friend Lincoln, an expert in knot-tying, her dog, HMS Beagle and her dreams of becoming a world-famous scientist, are enough to make her worries fade into the background. She can’t decide whether or not she wants things to change or stay the same forever. Lucky decides she needs to find her Higher Power in order to work it all out, but she has no idea how she’ll do it. In Lucky Breaks, Lucky turns eleven and she feels ready to take on anything new that is heading her way. As it turns out, there is plenty of new coming down the pipe and Lucky has the chance to see just how intrepid she can be.
Both of Patron’s books are gorgeously formed, managing to be spare and deep all at once but still captivating in their stories and characters. Kids will love the quirkiness of the characters, from Lincoln, knot-tyer extraordinaire, to Short Sammy, who lives in a giant metal water tank in the middle of the desert, to Brigitte, Lucky’s guardian who does things just a little bit differently because she is French and is therefore unusual by definition. I always admire an author who inspires you to imagine whole stories about the lives and pasts of secondary characters. That makes for rich storytelling. And Lucky herself. I think of Lucky as a bit like Clementine – creative, spunky, a trouble-magnet – only Lucky is slightly more grown up and certainly a little damaged by her past. Another aspect of these books that makes you feel like you are getting a glimpse inside an oddly wonderful community is the setting. The tiny desert town of Hard Pan, California (population 43) is really like another character in Patron’s stories. You can smell the desert and see it too by the time you’ve finished both stories. Patron makes you appreciate the beauty to be found in Lucky’s wild home, in its vast sky and dust storms and hot breezes and stars. As I was reading, I was thinking that certainly these novels belong on Mitali Perkins’ list of “Take Me Away Fiction because they are truly books that evoke their setting to perfection. I think I read (or heard) somewhere that Patron wanted to write a book she would have enjoyed as a kid, with short chapters to keep the story moving along. While I wouldn’t say that these are plot driven stories, I did find that Lucky’s mostly small day-to-day challenges really did keep the momentum up, and I think that kids will enjoy the pace of the books.
I will be waiting with much anticipation for the final installment in Patron’s Lucky trilogy. These are quietly profound stories about growing up and appreciating the love in your life, with humour and a little adventure and characters who will stay with you. It would be a huge oversight not to mention Matt Phelan’s fine illustrations – evocative and tender, they capture Hard Pan and its residents in a simple and beautiful style.
The Higher Power of Lucky and Lucky Breaks are published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.