Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dowell, Frances O’Roark. Falling In. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010 (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

One of my most vivid childhood memories is a recurring dream I had when I was five or six. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived in a big rancher in Dresher, PA, and I once dreamed every night for more than a whole week that their house had a secret door that only I knew about, and that door led to a magical room filled with endless rows of the coolest toys in the world. Unfortunately, the boogeyman and other similar monsters lived there as well, so every visit was an adventure of the highest magnitude (for a kid). It has been years since I remembered that time in my young life, but Frances O’Roark Dowell seems to know just what I experienced. In her new novel Falling In, she proves that she understands childhood imagination when she describes my dream almost to the letter: “Everybody’s had the dream where you find a door inside your house you’d never noticed before . . . Usually it’s filled with wondrous things . . .” (23). As regular readers of this column know, I do not read and review much fantasy, but I was intrigued after flipping through the book and finding that paragraph. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed, and that Ms. O’Roark Dowell’s Falling In is a fine Alice in Wonderland-type story about a girl who needs to find her place and herself in the universe, but cannot seem to do it in the regular world.

Isabelle Bean has never truly felt a part of this world. There is a buzzing in the world that she hears that no one else seems to notice, and since Isabelle is a loner who rarely attempts social interaction, she has no one with whom to share her insights. Isabelle is an outsider, or at least she feels like one: “There is a barely visible edge of otherworldliness to Isabelle, a silver thread that runs from the top of her head to the bottom bump of her spine. It frightens other children away. They’re afraid that if they sit too close, the thread will weave itself into their hair and pull them into dark places they can’t find their way out of” (14). This feeling of not belonging to this world is confirmed when Isabelle opens the school nurse’s closet and inadvertently steps into an alternate universe in which a wicked witch eats children who are always on the run from the grisly end they have been taught to expect if caught. When she first arrives in this parallel world, the local children think she is the witch because no one has ever actually seen her. Isabelle must prove her (reasonably) honorable intentions to not only the local strangers but also to Hen, a girl who may have befriended Isabelle primarily because she wants help in killing the witch. When the two adolescent ladies are taken in by Grete, a mysterious hermit and herbalist, Isabelle must open her mind and heart as the secrets of her innermost being become revealed. As she learns the Truth, Isabelle’s world and her destiny unravel with little hope of returning home, if that is even possible.

Although I cannot pretend to understand the process completely (as a man), young ladies definitely go through life-altering changes during puberty. Drastic and sudden changes can lead to culture shock and self-alienation as the individual no longer understands herself or her world. I have always read Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor for the female puberty journey from childhood to young adulthood, and I read Falling In by Frances O’Roark Dowell the same way. Ms. O’Roark Dowell’s inspired use of imagery, particularly sound, spreads an air of mystery across the entire novel; i.e. “In Mrs. Sharpe’s classroom the buzz had been a distant thing, felt more than heard. Here [in the alternate world], wherever here was, the buzz flattened out into a low-pitched hum, the sound of tiny motorcycles, maybe, or an off-kilter ceiling fan endlessly running, issuing a quiet whine. Isabelle stood, determined to find its source” (28). When Isabelle finally does start to solve her mysteries, as expected, she ends up with more questions than answers. But she is a resourceful and fanciful young lady who will succeed and find herself, despite whatever fate tries to inflict upon her. Isabelle Bean is a model of originality and creativity; Ms. O’Roark Dowell has created a memorable and dynamic character who is not afraid to stare down her destiny until it yells, “Uncle.”

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