Monday, June 6, 2011

Fantastic Peter Nimble

I’ve been looking forward to Peter Nimble since the moment I came across Jonathan Auxier’s website, The Scop.   The site is simple, the sketches are fun and that might be the best “about me’ section I’ve ever come across.   So to hear Jonathan was publishing his first middle-grade this fall, literally made me giddy.  Then I found that this particular middle grade novel is set in a quazi-Victorian age, starring a blind-orphan-thief.

Here’s what I need: books that I can look a kid in the eye and say, “Trust me, you’re going to love this.”  So that while they’re developing their reading (and thinking) strategies, they’ll fall in love with literature and see the relevancy for the skills.   I’m looking for books that create “the circulation effect” (I pass off a book and by the time it’s returned two months later, I’ve seen it on 15 different desks).   I’m quite confident that Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes will be one of those books. 

First and foremost, Peter Nimble has an absolutely mesmerizing flow to it.   It’s got all the fun of disenfranchised Dickens mixed with Phantom Tollbooth absurdity.  Jonathan Auxier seamlessly blends these two very diverse attributes, strapping his readers to his back as he takes them along for a breakneck ride through complete obscurity.  One minute you’re meeting his traveling companion, an enchanted horse-cat-knight; the next minute you’re giggling over a reference to 18th century burgling proverb.  And that’s what makes this novel so much fun.

Auxier immerses you in this wonderfully substantial tale while relentlessly sprinkling in bits of humor at every turn.  To really buy into fantasy, there needs to be in a believable world.  In a lot of the high-fantasy for middle-graders that I’ve read, this tends to get a bit descriptive.  Not that it’s a bad thing, most of the time it’s completely essential to the story.  But for inexperienced readers who haven’t built the stamina to stick it out, such description can slow the story down to abandonment.  Auxier does much of his world-building through an astute sense for humor.  Thieving terminology and old sayings build Peter’s culture.   This enables the author to spend less time creating the world and more time pushing Peter through it.  And the reader can pick the rest up along the way.

By omitting the overly descriptive elements of fantasy, we’re left with a story that moves at a truly exceptional pace.  Take my knees for example.  I had an hour to kill before heading home for dinner.  I made my way over to the beach with Peter Nimble in tow.  Before I knew it three hours had passed, my legs were cooked, and I was late for family dinner. 

The chapter structure and pace just work sensationally.   Some end in total cliffhangers, others are satisfying bookends; all without ever feeling predictable or formulaic.   Sometimes a section was wrapped up nicely when I assumed it would stretch out, while other times I thought I knew how a chapter would end only to be left with a dropped jaw and a yearning to find out where we’re going next.  And all of this happens from the moment we set foot into Peter’s tale. 

Right from the introduction it’s clear that we’re in the hands of a storyteller.  It doesn’t feel like the characters or the narrator know something that you don’t.  The information we learn in the beginning later becomes pertinent but it never comes off overly mysterious.   There’s nothing wrong with employing those strategies at a story’s onset but doing so risks losing that audience that isn’t quite ready to pick out the questions they’ll need to keep in their heads for a few hundred pages.  

Another major component of Peter Nimble’s flow is the manner in which we meet new characters and explore new settings.  The story’s landscapes constantly shift without inundating the reader with detail.  We grow accustomed to Peter’s new surroundings with him.  Seeing as how Peter is blind, both he and the reader are exposed to the setting by moving through it.    Characters too, flow in and out without coming off hollow or hurried. 

But the essential thread that ties this novel together is Jonathan Auxier’s outstanding narration.  I’m always telling my students, “You can’t talk to your reader unless you really mean it.”  And when they ask me what that means, I tell them, “I don’t know.  But go read Adam Gidwitz or Lemony Snicket.” 

Bad narration is intolerable and insulting to the reader, which makes discovering quality narrators that much more satiating.  Auxier guides us through Peter’s story without ever tipping his hand or pandering to his readers, unless he’s doing so intentionally, in which case, it’s pretty damn funny.  He’s constantly dropping bits of humor that range from explicit to embedded to ludicrously sarcastic.  And we haven’t even touched the most impressive part…

Our main character is blind.  The disability drives the story without ever becoming preachy or asking the reader for sympathy.  It’s refreshing to have a main character whose handicap is the source of his success (without him having to learn some character trait by coming to terms with the disability).  In fact, frequently, the disability becomes the butt of many a pun.  Good.  We certainly want to teach our kids to treat everybody, able or handicapped, with respect.  It’s nice to see Peter isn’t discluded from good-natured humor at his expense, like so often is the case when disabilities appear in children’s literature.

Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes is sure to be hit with middle grade boys and girls alike.  At times it’s utterly absurd; others, rich and poignant, but it always remains sensationally obscure.  And if nothing else, it’s that current of obscurity running throughout the novel that will charge its readers and keep them chuckling until the last page.

It’s my job to get emerging readers the skills they need to be proficient with text.  But what good is a skill set if you can’t find a relevancy in it?  I say I have just as much a responsibility to help my readers find both.  Many times, it requires some salesmanship.  And, a salesman is only as good as his product.  It’s the caliber of story that is simply… Fantastic.  

Okay, I can't end without mentioning how every bit of this book drips with style.  The cover is gorgeous, the chapter titles are some of the best I've ever heard, and as I was finishing it up on the way to our field trip today a student leaned in to check out the illustration at the top of the chapter.  That attention to detail clearly shows the amount of respect both the author and the publisher have for their readers.