Tweens these days

Posted on 23 Jun 2017 at 6:00am

From diverse families to trans teens, it’s hit-or-miss time in children’s lit

The-Lotterys-Plus-One

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue, illustrated by Caroline Hadilaksono (Arthur A. Levine Books 2017) $17.99; 320 pp.

Nine-year-old Sumac Lottery knew that her family was unique. It was no big deal, though; that’s what happens when a man from the Yukon and a man from India fall in love, and a Mohawk woman and a Jamaican woman fall in love, too. It’s what happens when there are seven kids, most of them from other “bios.”

It wasn’t always that way. When MaxiMum was giving birth to Sic 16 years ago, PapaDum and PopCorn were rubbing MaxiMum’s back when CardaMom found a winning lottery ticket that someone lost. They got lots of money, which allowed them to change their surnames and buy a big house for the big family that the four parents always wanted.

That all happened long before Sumac was born. And it might’ve stayed that way, too — 11 Lotterys (plus pets) in one big, rowdy, happy family — but then PopCorn got a call from the Yukon. His father had accidentally almost burned his house down, and he could no longer live by himself so the parents decided that Iain (PopCorn’s pop) should be moved into Camelottery. And because Sumac had a main-floor bedroom, she was asked to give it up and move her things to the Artic (also known as the attic).

That was something she really didn’t want to do. She really didn’t want Grumps to come live at Camelottery at all because he was mean and nasty and racist and he hated everything and everyone. To be truthful, Sumac didn’t like him very much either, so she started to think up a plan.

The Lotterys Plus One is too: too messy, too cutesy, too padded with not-pertinent-to-the-story scenes, and — with a plethora of names (see above) — too confusing. It’s as if the acclaimed author Emma Donoghue tried too much to put an Age of Aquarius spin on what could have been a simple story of diversity and inclusion.

That’s quite the departure from Donoghue’s adult novels, which are tight, vivid and brimming with stunning plausibility; instead, this story is just plain weird, starting with character names that are new-agey and forced-clever. These same characters give funny-not-funny names to rooms (“Derriere” is — wait for it! — the backside of the house), and much of the dialogue consists of inside-jokes and preschooler misunderstandings (“Spare Oom.” Say it aloud). It’s as if Pippi Longstocking moved into a House of Wordplay, only not as charming and nowhere near as much fun.

At its very basic, this story — a large, diverse family welcomes an elderly relative — is solid, even good. It’s the peripherals that are hard to get past, and 8-to-12-year-olds may not have much patience for it. For sure, adults can spot The Lotterys Plus One, and move on.

Pants-ProjectThe Pants Project by Cat Clarke (Sourcebooks 2017) $17; 272 pp.

The first day of middle school stinks to begin with, but it was worse for Liv. It wasn’t just the newness that bothered her. It wasn’t that Bankridge Middle School was bigger. The thing she dreaded was that the school had a dress code, which meant wearing a skirt.

Liv hadn’t worn a skirt in years. This was going to be horrible.

Admittedly, the first day didn’t kill her, though she learned fast that Bankridge had its share of Mean Girls. The boy she had to sit next to in home room, Jacob, was cool (she’d rather’ve sat with her best friend, Maisie). And P.E. class wasn’t bad, as long as Liv changed before everybody else got to the locker room.

Changing clothes in a crowd of loud girls made Liv uncomfortable. That’s because she knew she was transgender — a boy in a girl’s body. Being trans was the secret she wished she could tell somebody, but she was afraid. Her moms would probably understand but Liv wanted to wait, for many good reasons. She’d tell when the time was right; until then, she’d endure sixth grade.

Except life took a turn for the worse. Maisie started hanging with the Mean Girls, and she didn’t want to be Liv’s best friend anymore. Everybody started teasing Liv about having two moms. A family member got sick. And ugh! those skirts.

It wasn’t fair that Liv lost her best friend; or that Mean Girls bugged her, though she tried to ignore them; or that she couldn’t reveal the Secret. And it definitely wasn’t fair that boys didn’t have to wear skirts. Un. Fair. So Liv cooked up an audacious plan.

Without a doubt, The Pants Project is a good book, for kids or adults. It’s also a great reminder that adolescence is hard, kids are mean, support is key — and it’s all wrapped up in a wise, self-aware preteen you’ll enjoy meeting.

Indeed, Clarke gives readers a good peek inside the life of a kid who has things figured out… almost. Liv has a good understanding of her situation and is willing to carefully dip her toes into the coming-out pool, but that’s not the best part. No, the appeal of this book is that every middle-schooler alive will recognize the perfectly-written supporting cast of characters here — Mean Girls, nerds, jocks, nice teachers, jerks — making it easy to sympathize with our hero and her situations.

Meant for readers ages 10-to-14, it could be fast and fun for an older kid; if your child needs a reminder to be herself, she’ll especially love it. She’ll start The Pants Project, in fact, and it’ll quickly grow on her.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 23, 2017.

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