Friday, February 09, 2007

2007 TBR Challenge #1: Love, Ruby Lavender

Sadly, the cover illustration (by the very talented Marla Frazee, whose Roller Coaster should be considered a must-see picture book) is probably the best part of this novel. It's not a bad story (and, indeed, received a starred review in SLJ and was listed as an ALA Notable), but it's also not an outstanding one; readable, yet a trifle forced in spots.

The book is about Coping with Death -- Ruby Lavender's grandfather died a year ago, and the effects are still evident in Ruby's world, especially when her grandmother, a constant in Ruby's life, decides to leave their small Mississippi town and stay with relatives in Hawaii indefinitely. In her absence, Ruby makes a new friend, cares for three chickens that she and her grandmother saved from slaughter after the sale of an egg ranch, waits for their eggs to hatch, and continues her quarrel with another girl whose father died the same time as Ruby's grandfather (the latter a technique used to allow author Deborah Wiles to keep bringing up the death and adding a bit more information about the circumstances each time). Letters between Ruby and her grandmother -- set off in a different font -- appear at the beginning and end of numerous chapters, providing additional commentary on situations in the story. Ultimately, of course, Ruby and her antagonist reach a truce of sorts and Ruby also finds peace regarding her grandfather's death.

The story has a few creative touches -- I enjoyed the chickens with their distinctive personalities -- and recognition of the important issue of taking on unnecessary guilt when a loved one dies. The characters seemed a little underdeveloped, however, sometimes designed to advance the plot rather than stand as fleshed-out personalities in their own right, and the story seemed occasionally to want to teach rather than to portray life or entertain. As this excerpt illustrates, the prose is easy to follow, fairly streamlined, but not up to the quality of Rylant or MacLachlan:

The back meadow shimmered with sound. Ruby and Miss Eula walked through the flowering meadow grass, holding hands in the last wash of daylight, listening to the zizz, zizz, zizz of life around them. The moon was beginning to rise, a crescent moon, the color of old teeth.

(I still can't figure out why Wiles chose that last comparison, especially for the final image in a paragraph designed to establish the scene as pleasant and relaxing, but do like the flow of "holding hands in the last wash of daylight.")

My copy is a paperback that demonstrates just how much marketing is now involved with children's books. Not only does it contain a "Grandmother-Granddaughter Reading Group Guide," a list of book-related activities ("Ruby drew a map of [her hometown] . . . Draw a map of your own town"), but it also has an interview with the book's author conducted by its fictitious narrator Ruby Lavender, along with the first chapter of Wiles's "next hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age novel."


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