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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Kathleen Van Cleve

Chocolate-flavored rhubarb, ruby flowers, and a giant umbrella ride are just a few of the features that have made the Peabodys’ family farm the number six tourist attraction in the world. Rain also falls every week on Monday at one o’clock on the dot, and the crops have an almost eerie ablity to grow themselves, making the farming process relatively easy and adding to the farm’s magical mystique. Despite growing up on this seemingly enchanted land, however, eleven-year-old Polly Peabody is a surprisingly average girl, who happens to be scared of just about everything, from the nasty bully who mocks her at school to the icky, but quite loquacious, insects and spiders that seem to taunt her at home.

Perhaps not so average is her friendship with Harry, a particularly warmhearted chocolate rhubarb to whom Polly confesses her deepest anxieties about school, the farm, and life in general. On the Monday before she begins seventh grade, one of Polly’s fears appears to come true: the routine rain shower simply refuses to fall, and as the skies remain clear in the following weeks, Polly believes the farm’s enchantment may be coming to an end. Things go from bad to worse when her older brother falls ill and soon after her beloved aunt threatens to sell the family’s land. Polly must figure out the secret of the farm’s survival and as it turns out, Harry and those chatty bugs she finds so intimidating might just hold the key.

Magical realism meets Midwestern sensibilities in this charming coming-of-age tale that manages to tackle some sobering issues, including mortality and family betrayal, while maintaining a sense of wonder that will captivate young readers from the first page. Fantastical elements, such as the self-aware plants and talkative bugs, abound, but Van Cleve manages to imbue the Disneyesque farm with a unique authenticity that prevents it from becoming too kitschy or overwrought. The interesting setting is only a small part of the book’s appeal, however, because the story here really lies with Polly: the dilemmas she faces as an everyday kid are heartbreakingly ordinary, especially when the one person she admires the most turns out to be all too flawed, and tweens will readily relate to her feelings of disappointment and helplessness. Her relationship with her aunt is both touching and complicated as Polly realizes that despite their best intentions, grownups are really just “tall third graders,” entirely capable of mistakes and bad decisions that make them no less lovable or more inherently evil than any child looking for the right answer. Polly’s struggle to reconcile her idealized notions of people with the reality of her situation will be poignantly familiar to young readers dealing with their own disenchantment with the world.

Ponderings about nature, God, and science are also deftly handled without becoming ham-fisted; the select quotes from Emerson and the various characters’ interpretations of said quotes could make for some useful discussion points. The happy, but restrained, ending makes this a fully satisfying and thoughtful read that fans of Matthew Cody’s recent Powerless (BCCB 2/10) will surely appreciate.

Kate Quealy-Gainer, Assistant Editor



Cover image from Drizzle ©2010 by Kazu Kibuishi.  Used by permission of Dial Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2010.