4.14.2008

Reading Life 28

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen
Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Recently, I was complaining to my editor's very cool assistant by way of email that I was experiencing some troubles with my lawnmower. Oh, it had been a longish winter, much of it spent with my wife and me weeding, but when I pulled the machine out of the shed a couple weeks back, either I flooded the thing so it wouldn't start when I pulled, or I'd overfilled it with oil (I can never tell if I'm right at the full line or not so to be on the safe side, I spill some more in), or it could've just been in mower-hybernation still. I'd asked her a day or so before to please please please send me a copy (if one was available) of Graham McNamee's short novel, Sparks (about a boy who's mentally slow but who learns to deal with his learning disability in his own way, but learns, more importantly, that friendship is gads cooler than being "cool"--not as hard pushing a book as his Acceleration, but still good) and Caroline asked if I'd be interested in a copy of Lawn Boy by Paulsen. This is Paulsen at his best in this format, the short short novel, or the long long story (he's done this before with The Rifle, for example, and The Tent (this second one is awesome!)): it's the story about a boy who inherits a rider mower from his long-deceased grandpa. The machine is old but well-kept, and has two speeds: turtle and rabbit. Our hero decides to mow the family's yard, which he gets done quickly, then is hired by a neighbor to do his yard (and so, the lawn boy earns more than enough to buy the inner tube for his ten speed bike he was in need of), then another neighbor hires him and another and another, and the boy's lawnscaping career hops to rabbit gear. And it only speeds up from there. The boy meets Arnold, a hippie throw-back who drinks unsweetened tea that tastes like it's sweetened, who works from home as a stockbroker. So the man brokers a deal with the boy: do my lawn and I'll invest the money I would pay you into the market. And the boy gets rich, fast and filthy. He even owns a prizefighter, Joseph Powdermilk, whose ring name is Joey Pow! It's a funny story and worth putting on one's shelf to pull and then put into the hands of reluctant readers, who themselves might know the lawnmowing business. You never know, you might just make a thousandaire of one of your young readers. Put all kinds of ideas into his/her head. That would be cool.

Jenny Downham's novel is good. It's the story of Tessa Scott, a girl who at 16 is dying of leukemia, and she's got a list, much like the recent movie The Bucket List. Hers includes sex (which at times verges on the near graphic), drug use, breaking the law, and driving (though without a license). Initially, the items on the list involve only the physical, the egotistical. Eventually, they turn more spiritual (not to be confused with godly, because at no time does Tessa look to God; as a matter of fact, in leaving instructions to her baby brother Cal, she tells him to avoid getting religion). Spiritual, in the sense that she looks to love: first love, the love of family and friends, for family and friends, love for Lauren Tessa, her best friend's yet to be born baby girl. She holds her mother's hand tight, she leans on her father's shoulders the more, she embraces him like a mother would and lets him cry on her shoulder, tells her brother "I love you," and in her final moments so wants to hear those same words, "[l]ike three drops of blood falling onto snow," from her mother, who long ago abandoned them for another man. It's a moving story, and Downham handles the girl's passing well, without letting it get out of hand emotionally.

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