Think about this. How many kids' books have you read where the hero is orphaned? And why is that? It's because it's an easy way to have the kid be able to start their adventure. Because what is the other option? Our hero (and I'm using this word as gender neutral, like actor), if he has one or both parents, must disobey authority in order to get the plot rolling. And that means running away.
I never really thought about the important role the runaway had in kids' literature until I read two new middle grade (that means suggested for kids 8-12) novels that both involved runaways. They are such different books, but in the end, they kind of have similar messages.
The first is Tim Federle's Better Nate than Ever (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers). Nate Foster is a kid stuck in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. He and his friend Libby are Broadway obsessives. He's teased a lot for his interest, and that unlike his older brother, he doesn't much like sports. So he decides he's going to get on the bus, head to New York, and try out for the role of Elliot in "E.T. The Musical", having seen news of an open casting.
The story is rather crazy, with a wild busy trip, a series of setbacks. I kind of love the way Nate's story arc is as dramatic as the theater bug that's totally afflicted Nate. Trying out for the show, he's caught lying about his age, but then, his aunt shows up and he can audition after all. Seemingly rejected, he gets on the bus to go back to Pennsylvania, but then he gets a text message. There's a lot of "but thens," but then, I wouldn't expect anything less from this show stopper.
Meanwhile Libby tries to stall trouble by blackmailing Nate's older brother Anthony, a kid into sports and girls, but who also might be drinking, which might not go over well with their rather conservative parents. That same rush to judgment by Nate's mom and dad have created the rift with Aunt Heidi that has left them not speaking to each other for years.
Whatever happens to Nate, we are quite aware that by the end of the book, he is different, his mom is different, his aunt is different, and if I were writing the copy, I might say "Broadway will never be the same" so maybe the theater district is different too.
So the next book I picked up is Holly Black's Doll Bones (Margaret McElderry Books, on sale May 7), a book targeted to ages 10-14, but to my thinking, pretty similar in reading level and themes to Federle's novel. On the surface, they couldn't be different, as Black has penned a midwestern ghost story. I don't normally like to discuss books so far in advance of publication, but being that I need to get this story out before Tim Federle's event on Tuesday, and they are the same publisher, and we also want folks to know about Holly Black coming (and so early in the tour--see below), I'm making an exception.
Alice, Poppy, and Zach play these adventures with their dolls and action figures, in a world ruled over by the Great Queen, an antique porcelain doll that sits in Poppy's china cabinet. But one day, Poppy tells the others about a dream she had, where she becomes obsessed with returning the doll to East Liverpool, Ohio, several towns over. It turns out that Zach (we learn the most about his situation, so I guess I'd call him the her) is dealing with some family issues; his dad has recently returned from separating from his mom, and in his vigor to help Zach grow up, has thrown away all his action figures. So at the same time Poppy is wanting to help the Queen, Zach is telling the girls he's ready to give up the whole thing.
In the end, Poppy convinces Alice and Zach to head for Ohio (yes, from Pennsylvania) to bury the doll. These triple runaways have very little money, and a series of setbacks (yes, like Nate's, only spookier) deplete their resources. Alice (who yes, is an orphan) worries about the wrath of her grandma, but Poppy (whose parents ignore her, another classic situation for child heroes) convinces them to persevere on, to find the old porcelain factory in East Liverpool, and pacify the ghost that seems to be haunting the doll. The ghost is named Eleanor, by the way. I want you to be on good terms with her.
Black's a seasoned writer, having co-written The Spiderwick Chronicles, as well as two other series on her own, Modern Faerie Tales and The Curse Workers. By some stroke of luck, we're hosting her launch event at the Cudahy Family Library, 3500 Library Drive, just South of Layton off Packard, on Tuesday, May 7, 6:30 pm. Yes, it's the first official day of sale for Doll Bones. I expect that fans of Black's teen novels (and by now you, like me, have figure out that teen readers extend into their twenties and thirties) will be excited by Black's appearance in town.
The thing that struck me was the similarity in themes of these very disparate stories. Zach and Alice and Poppy worry about the changes they will encounter growing up. Poppy worries what their relationship will be like if Alice's romantic interest in Zach comes to fruition. And Zach worries about what his basketball friends will say if he's still playing with girls and dolls. Nate may come from a very different place, but he still has to navigate a world that puts basketball-playing kids like his older brother in one place and kids who sing show tunes in another.
Of course the other odd coincidence in the two books is that the heroes of both novels seem to be desperate to escape from Western Pennsylvania. If I were a kid in that situation, I probably would have jumped on a bus to Pittsburgh's Kennywood Amusement Park, where there's enough woodlands to bury a grieving ghost and a performer could still thrive in the Kennyville Party Band.