The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill, Little Brown, August 2011.
I went to ALA hoping to come home with a copy of The Mostly True Story of Jack after seeing it in Little Brown's summer catalog. The title & its cover grabbed me, calling to mind the story of Jack & the beanstalk while also looking like something a little out of the ordinary. The blurb is intriguing: "When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time..." I snagged an ARC & it shot to the top of my to-read pile.
I was relieved & delighted to find that the book lived up to its lovely cover: It has elements of ages-old storytelling but feels contemporary. It is challenging, suspenseful, & compulsively readable. The characters are thoughtfully drawn, the setting well described, & the fantastical elements of the story are totally cool in an almost eerie way - a house that lives & breathes, shivers & tingles; women made of bark & corn silk; a schoolhouse with the power to collapse in on itself & regenerate.
One of the book's strongest points is the mystery Barnhill begins weaving on page one. "Frankie was the first to know. Frankie was the first to know most things - but, since he hadn't spoken since he was eight years old, it didn't matter what he knew. ... Frankie laid his left hand over the knot of scars that curled over half his face. ... It's coming, the scars said. ... No, Frankie thought, shaking his head. Not it. He. He's coming."
How did Frankie know things before anyone else? Why can't Frankie talk? What happened to him? Why is he scarred? Who is coming?! I have to read on! & so it goes until page 319.
Jack goes from a life of near-literal invisibility with his parents & brother to Hazelwood, where everyone pays him attention & everyone knows something he doesn't. The mystery, rather than unfolding throughout the story, becomes increasingly more complex as the story progresses. What a wonderful thing to encounter in a middle-grade novel! Barnhill doesn't dumb anything down for her audience; the answers to the questions she poses are not easy or obvious. She challenges her readers to think & speculate from beginning to end. I remember reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when I was in elementary school & being entirely overwhelmed when Meg & Calvin shrink down to go inside Charles Wallace's body to find out what's wrong with his mitochondria. The ideas were all so much bigger than me & the references were all so much more than I could understand in third grade, but I loved it nonetheless - the complexity, the fantasy, the mystery. Not that The Mostly True Story is complex on a biological scale; the similarity is that both Barnhill & L'Engle respect their child (or adult!) readers enough to let them figure things out on their own. If you have to go look up mitochondria in the dictionary, or in Jack's case, look up references to Gog & Magog, Lyonesse, or Ys, so be it. Barnhill lays out the puzzle pieces & says "Okay, now you put it together. You're smart enough."
I honestly can give this book my personal highest children's book compliment: The Mostly True Story feels like a new classic, a modern fairy tale. Except for a mention of computers toward the very end of the book, the story's events could unfold at any time. When there is nothing to date a story, it becomes timeless. I love this quality in children's books, a quality that is becoming increasingly rare. The last time I recall having this reaction to a book - a story that blends new & old with the result being something original & timeless - was with Grace Lin's wondrous When the Mountain Meets the Moon. (My review of that one here.)
I will happily give The Mostly True Story of Jack a place on my bookshelf & most definitely will reread it at some point in the future. It's the kind of book that almost needs a reread or two to be fully appreciated. I heartily recommend it, & already look forward to Barnhill's next children's book. In the meantime, check out her blog, because it's great. (I too have loved Labyrinth since I was a child, & I too was both scarred & fascinated by David Bowie's tight pants.)
Next up: The Magician King by Lev Grossman (...if I can find my copy! Ack! Where did it go?!)