Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Crenshaw

I do not like this, Sam-I-Am.  I do not like green eggs and ham.  Or Crenshaw.


It really pains me to feel this way.  And no, it's not because of The One and Only Ivan.  I thought that Ivan, while a perfectly decent book, was just ... okay.  It was very obviously Award Material because (barring the past year's YMAs), literary awards have a tendency to go to books about Big Issues.  In Ivan's case, we've got animal rights.  It's a narrative that hearkens back to Black Beauty, another Tragic Animal Story.  It's a weary trope, and I thought that Katherine Applegate was better than that.

As a kid (I suppose nowadays you'd call me a "tween," but I really loathe that word and use it as sparingly as possible), I adored the Animorphs series.  Having no concept of a publishing schedule, I would routinely beg my mom to take me to the local bookstore (now sadly closed, thank you very much Big Box Stores!) The Neverending Story to check and see if there was a new Animorphs.  Plus, I could get ones I hadn't read via the always-Amazing Scholastic catalog.  For a young book nerd, the Scholastic catalog was the literary equivalent of FAO Schwartz.

I loved Animorphs because it had aliens AND animals AND shapeshifting AND aliens!  I was the kid who watched The X-Files with her dad on Sunday nights--what can I say?  It was also one of the first series that got me invested in character relationships (which is why I didn't read the final titles: I refuse to believe any of that ever happened and in my mind, Rachel and Tobias and Jake and Cassie stayed together forever), one of which was interracial.  Actually, two of the big relationships were interspecies.  How wild is that?


So all of that cool world-building and Yeerk domination and shapeshifting that happened in the Animorphs series had me super-excited to read a book by Katherine Applegate that wasn't Ivan and that had a giant cat on the cover.  Alas, I really think Ms. Applegate should stick with spec fic and leave the moral-fables-with-animals to Kate DiCamillo.

Crenshaw is a very short little book about a boy, his imaginary friend Crenshaw the cat, and the boy's messed-up family life.  Jackson (named after a guitar) wants to be a scientist, because then you deal with the facts and not the feelings.  Like that helpless sinking in his gut as his wannabe musician parents sell off all their possessions to make the rent.  Like the fear of being homeless again, living in the family van.

Between them, Jackson's parents work five part-time jobs, but they can't pay the bills or feed their kids.  This is totally believable in today's economy.  However, Jackson's parents admit that they are not good at managing money.  Dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which obviously contributes to the difficulty of finding work, but they explicitly refuse to accept any sort of help or to ask for help from available relatives and friends.  Instead, their pride makes their kids go to bed hungry and causes Jackson to be in serious distress.  Since his parents can't be adults, he feels like he has to assume that role.  Crenshaw magically appears to help him find out what he has to say.  Ooh, enigmatic.

Look, homelessness and poverty are extremely complex.  I have a ton of privilege that I am trying to check when having this discussion.  It's hard.

I kept having flashes of It's A Wonderful Life while reading this, because the setup is rather Capra-esque.  Crenshaw is Clarence and Jackson is George.  Crenshaw swoops in to save Jackson and teach him what he needs to do in order to make his future a success.  If you didn't guess it from page three, it's to tell his parents how he really feels.  Evidently, Jackson's parents just go about life like la-di-da, our son and daughter totally don't notice that we are selling the furniture and will probably be homeless again.  Ups and downs, everyone!

These are two adults who don't seem to give a fig about what their kids feel or experience.  Homelessness is not an "adventure."  I was seriously hoping that Jackson would make good on his promise to stay with a friend until things got sorted out, because that boy needed out of that situation.

Instead, Applegate gives us a pat, unbelievable conclusion: the parents magically find jobs at a music store that comes with an apartment.  Wow: Jackson follows Crenshaw's advice and BAM!  Problems solved.  It's not like that.  I felt insulted and hurt on behalf of the millions of Americans who are homeless.  There is no magical cat that shows up to them and offers them employment and free housing for a month.  I guess writing a powerful, realistic book about homelessness would scare the kiddos.  Tell that to the homeless kids out there.  They're living it.

This treacly, preachy mess featuring a Cheshire Cat-wannabe should be avoided unless your name is Pollyanna.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

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