A Reader Rescues a Bully’s Love

GibbsAuthor, B. S. Gibbs, summarizes this as a “chapter book for kids … illustrated with a dozen intricate, beautiful drawings.” True. The attorney/storyteller inspired by Jane Austen, light fantasy, “and all things medieval,” goes on to tout Janetta and the Book Thief  as a trove of positive pleas for reading, kindness, inclusiveness, and anti-bullying. Those things are apparent. What is not immediately evident, yet makes the 47-page story stand out, is its elegant plot, straightforward prose, and ability to be a great discussion-starter.

The story is largely uncomplicated. That makes the read ideal for third- to fifth-graders whose energy levels almost forbid them to focus on anything that moves slowly. Gibbs’ mystery tale about someone who takes the last chapters of books is easy to follow and grasp, which is the book’s strength and weakness.

Janetta, the main character, chases down the who and why behind the thefts, which first struck me as a weird story element. What is the value of the last chapter of a book?

I then looked at the work from some other angles. I considered what life might be if the last chapter of every story disappeared. The incompleteness hit me. I was able to connect with Janetta’s motivation. The character says, “I can’t imagine my life without reading!”

To that extent, Gibbs’ heroine might interest a reader, yet comes off as too perfect (apologies, but that is the only word that comes to mind) to square with reality. An average 8- to 12-year-old is not obsessed with reading, despite most parents’ wishes.

The fairies who invite Janetta to Eloria, the book-fairy land, Queen Esmeralda and the villain, Sir Grumpsalot, do not have enough edge to compete with the kinds of characters contemporary grade-schoolers find in other books and on television. Gibbs’ chapter book reminded me of plots and characters I have read in works from some Latin American writers. That is the book’s major shortfall.

A minor one is a slip in the digital layout. In the Kindle version I perused, several of artist Anca Gabriela Marginean’s illustrations slid into the lines above them. Sentences were obscured, which distracts the reader. The saving grace is that the story is pretty easy to grasp, so the gaffs do not cause a person to get lost.

Those elements aside, teachers and parents will find that the message about the effects of bullying in Janetta and the Book Thief  and the power of one kind act to change a person’s life overtakes most of the work’s weakness.

Janetta tells her fairy friend Violetta that Sir Grumpsalot, “rejects all of you so that you cannot reject him.” That defensive stance is at the heart of many rubs and scrapes, even in adult life. The line is a great place to launch a discussion with young people on a bully’s motivation, or offer them insight as to why they indulge in brusque acts.

Fear is powerful, as the story makes clear. “I believe he also tells himself that he doesn’t like any of you. But, I believe he desperately wants to be friends. He just doesn’t know how and he is scared to try.”

I won’t give away the end. Gibbs’ story is a saga about loves. Janetta loves books. Book fairies love to inspire writers. Grumpsalot loves to be mysterious. As those elements collide the reader comes to a happy conclusion. The path is worth a glance. Violetta and the other fairies learn that no one is beyond redemption. For youth today, that is a most important lesson.

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A Hunger for Innocence

Some scenarios are always creepy, and Appetite for Innocence:  A Dark Psychological CoverThriller by Lucinda Berry holds the secret. The plot is resonates with the intensity of James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, from the Alex Cross series. As the prolific Patterson, Berry, a real-life clinical psychologist, tells a story that highlights the vulnerability of young women and girls, and determination of sick male minds to brutally despoil their sexuality and sense of trust.

The narrative shows the author knows her way around the human psyche. The character’s descriptions and reflections add another level of intensity to a tale that is already a page-turner. Set in the contemporary “live out loud”  social media-culture, the villain trolls status updates and other trash and tribulations that real-life millennials, especially girls share so willingly to find victims who are virgins.  “They’re locked away in his sound-proof basement until they’re groomed and ready,” as the publicist Heather Harrison described. “He throws them away like pieces of trash after he’s stolen their innocence. Nobody escapes alive.”

 

Then there is a clever twist. Ella, the main character is a resilient and resourceful girl who the police and FBI believe foiled the aims of a serial rapist. She escapes and frees a slew of intended victims, once of which is Sarah. Readers will think they know this tale of cat and mouse, yet they do not. Berry’s “twist” takes Ella beyond the initial challenge into a plot that is as dark as promised. Ultimately, readers will wonder whether the title applies to more to the criminal or his victims.

Berry dramatizes the innocence of the characters through many statements and gestures. Those moments add a sense of truth to the fickleness in young thoughts. After the rescue, Ella states:

I don’t have the heart to tell her [mother] my faith in God was the first thing I abandoned in the basement. In the beginning, I prayed so much I even did it in my sleep, begging for protection, guidance for the people trying to find me, and to watch over Mom. God had always been as real to me as the bed I slept in at night and the walls of my house. I’d carried my Bible in my backpack since kindergarten. He was my compass, always my due north. His job was to love and protect me from harm. As time went on and things grew worse, it seeped in what a fool I’d been to believe. At first, I saw it as a test of faith. I’d always been taught God tested your faith, but it wasn’t a test—it was torture. It boiled down to two options: God was real, present, and directly involved in our lives like I’d been taught or nothing I’d been taught was true and God wasn’t real. He was either there and did nothing to help me or he didn’t exist. I quickly decided there couldn’t be a God because no God who was supposed to love me and had the power to intervene in my life would do nothing to save me. I didn’t have to be scared of going to hell because of my unbelief. I was already there.

There are deeper moments when the yearn for salvation seems lost that will tug at the heart. At the same time, the experiences are so natural that the actions become chilling in their reality that many readers will shudder. For example, when Ella confides:

I get up slowly. It still hurts to stand. I shuffle into the bathroom to change my pad first. I don’t want to bleed on any of his things. I don’t think the bleeding is ever going to stop.

To believe her resolve is exhausted would be to miss the strength that lies beneath the discourse that sounds so naive.  With its references to artifacts of teen life such as Gilmore Girls the author demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge that might scare young readers with its truth. The use of Ella’s and Sarah’s voices breeds a fascination with the similarity of the main characters, despite their avowed differences. Eventually, the plot makes a final turn in the revelation of Sarah’s real role in the drama. Most of what happens in the end will come as a surprise even to those who have read Berry’s earlier novels Phantom Limb and Missing Parts. Spoilers avoided,  those who read Appetite for Innocence are in for a wild ride. If you love crime, suspense and thrillers give the work a chance.