FREAKY GREEN EYES, by Joyce Carol Oates, (HarperTempest, $16.99; grades 7 and up.) With this opening scene, Oates—an otherwise prolific author of adult fiction, nonfiction, andpoetry—brilliantly introduces young readers to her main characters in this compelling and tragic story about self-discovery, family, and forgiveness.
Reid Pierson was a popular football player until an injury sidelined him. He bounced back, however, as a successful TV sportscaster. In addition to a hectic work schedule, he’s busy socially, supporting charities, hobnobbing with computer company giants, and backing local politicians. Appearances mean everything, and he expects unconditional loyalty from his family, especially Krista, his wife. After years of faithfully hanging on his arm, however, Krista seeks space for her own “personality.” She’s a talented artist, but her husband resents the time she spends in her studio, away from him. Finally, Krista resorts to spending days at a time at a cabin a few hours away, where she can create in peace.
The family is on the verge of self- destructing. Franky misses her mother terribly but also begrudges her absence. When Reid denounces Krista’s lack of heart, Franky doesn’t know whether to agree or to defend her mother. For the first time, she must choose between her parents.
Then Krista disappears. The police and media consider Reid the main suspect despite his vehement protestations. Franky, who agonizes over her last conversation with her mother—when she told her, “I hate you"—wants to believe her father. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In evaluating her parents’ behavior, Franky learns much about Freaky Green Eyes and courageously makes a decision that will change her family forever.
Although the book is a bit long, Oates is deliberate in the development of her characters. The plot moves slowly until the end, when the pace becomes almost frantic. The rich early chapters, however, establish the rapidly deteriorating family relationships and the power struggles between Reid and Krista and between Franky and each of her parents, as well as the qualities that Franky has inherited from them. Oates effectively uses short chapters and choppy paragraphs that jump between wildly divergent thoughts to highlight Franky’s confusion. And the foggy, drizzly Seattle setting reflects the teen’s sadness.
Oates never overtly addresses the emotional and physical abuse that litters the novel, yet she brilliantly shows the consequences of such behavior. One drawback: Once the story reaches its climax, Oates inadequately addresses Franky’s emotional pain as she forgives—or at least accepts—a brutal crime in an unrealistically short time.
MILKWEED, by Jerry Spinelli.(Knopf, $15.95; grades 5 and up.) Living alone on the streets of Warsaw, and stealing bread to survive, one boy has been called Stopthief, Stupid, Runt, Fast, and Jew, but he’s never really had an identity. After the Nazis invade Poland, he assumes the fictional life of an 8-year-old gypsy orphan named Misha Pilsudski. This falsehood enables the boy to avoid Nazi persecution even after being herded into the Warsaw Ghetto with thousands of Jews, and at first he admires the soldiers. Then he sees how his ghetto friends suffer at the Nazis’ hands, forcing him to consider what type of person he wants to be. The boy’s naiveté proves an effective viewpoint from which to tell a story that is difficult and confusing, even for adults. In addition, Usually, 14-year-old Franky Pierson can relate to both of her parents. When she finds herself at a party brimming with beer and older boys, for example, she first considers her father’s theory: “We take our cues from the immediate environment, like birds and animals do. If you’re challenged, it’s FIGHT or FLIGHT.” Then she contemplates how her mother feels when accompanying her former pro-football-playing husband to parties. “Mom said she felt as if she didn’t exist, and this was the way I was feeling,” Franky admits, “embarrassed yet excited, too, and hopeful.” As the night progresses, she passively allows herself to drink too much, as her mother might. But when cornered by an aggressive boy, Franky discovers an emotional and physical strength—like that of her father—that she never knew she had. She refers to this alter ego as Freaky Green Eyes.
Misha’s childlike capacity for love and forgiveness allows Spinelli to sensitively cover a controversial part of history. Most important, Misha learns that, like the milkweed that manages to grow even inside the dirty ghetto, he is a survivor.
MAGGIE’S DOOR, by Patricia Reilly Giff. (Wendy Lamb, $15.95; grades 5-7.) This tenderly written companion book to Nory Ryan’s Song picks up the Ryans’ story as they escape the Irish potato famine. It traces the individual journeys of 12-year-old Nory and her neighbor Sean as they struggle to reach the Brooklyn doorstep of Nory’s sister, Maggie, and her husband, who happens to be Sean’s brother. Both trips are fraught with suffering. Nory walks the long road to Galway alone to meet her ship, only to discover that the boat has already departed. She manages to get passage on another ship, but she experiences hunger and witnesses sickness and death during her Atlantic crossing. Sean must travel first from Galway to Liverpool as ballast, standing in a ship’s dark, dank hull for days before taking a position as an assistant cook on a ship bound for America. Giff, whose own ancestors made the same trek as Nory and Sean, splits the narration between the two characters, offering distinctly different accounts of the Irish immigrant experience.
THE GREEN DOG, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. (Frances Foster, $16; grades 3-6.) The summer after 4th grade stretches before Suzanne, and she can think only of her dog, Jeff: “He is black-and-tan, with long silky fur, a big pink tongue, and chocolate brown eyes.” But Suzanne doesn’t really own this loyal dog, who helps her fish and hunt in the woods surrounding her northeastern Pennsylvania house the way no human friend does. She only daydreams about the canine. So Suzanne can hardly believe it when he appears for real on the family’s front porch. The ensuing summer is perfect, except for Jeff’s propensity for trouble: He eats the neighbor’s rhubarbs, destroys her dad’s handmadetrain set, and manages to cover himself in green paint. In this “mostly true story,” Staples sensitively describes a lonely girl’s love for a dog she can’t keep and her sadness at having to give him up.
— Jennifer Pricola
A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Kids’ Books