CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 3. . . .September 17, 2010
Jackson Jones: The Tale of a Boy, an Elf, and a Very Stinky Fish.
Jenn Kelly. Illustrated by Ariane Elsammak.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderkidz (Distributed in Canada by HarperCollins Canada), 2010.
269 pp., pbk., $14.99.
Adventure and adventures -Fiction
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Todd Kyle.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“The Author knows everything. The Author plans out every single detail in your life. Everyone has a purpose because of the Author. You, me, the butterfly...we all have a purpose.”
Jackson’s head spun. Eleissa turned back to the book.
“You’ll get it in a minute,” she said.
Jackson leaned back, lying down on the sleeping bag. Meeka handed him a purple velvet cushion edged in gold trim, which he thanked her for and tucked comfortable under his head. His eyes focused on the swaying lantern.
And then Jackson had a good think.
I can’t tell you how long he thought because time seems to fly or alternatively stop when you have a good think, and seeing as how Jackson wasn’t timing himself, I have no idea.
And it’s completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that he took the time to think and some things need time to be thought about. So if you have something worth thinking about, I strongly suggest you get thinking on your own big think. I am delighted to tell you that he got it. And I can’t tell you how Jackson got it. I can’t even tell you what he was thinking about when he came to the point of getting it. But he got it. And it made sense. One day when you have the time and you can think about it, you’ll get it too.
Jackson Jones is a 10-year-old boy with a happy family life who is tormented by problems with shyness and lack of self-confidence at school. During a family reunion, he falls from his upper bed bunk into his Great Aunt Harriet’s enormous head of hair where he discovers there is a secret world populated by elves called “readers” who read people’s destinies written by a mysterious, all-seeing “Author” who has plans for everyone and encourages them to follow their dreams to fulfill these plans. Jackson realizes that his future involves becoming a writer – and possibly a baseball player – and he leaves Harriet’s hair with a newfound self-confidence. Realizing that the Author’s house resembles Harriet’s childhood home in real life, he visits the house with his mother and Harriet, who reconnects with her childhood dreams and promptly jumps into a hole in the yard, rejoining the world of the Author.
Told in an extremely wordy, self-referential, and mocking style, this book has a zany appeal. Chapters have ridiculously long names (some longer than the chapter itself), the narrator speaks directly to the reader, and words are defined and twisted in a highly imaginative manner. The plot is equally bizarre, with unexpected (and sometimes unexplained) twists, highly improbable conditions (a secret world in a woman’s hair!), and even a literal cliff-hanger, where Jackson has to save the life of his “tour guide,” Meeka, in a test of his resolve and creativity.
The problem here, though, is that all this bizarreness is the dressing on what is at its core an allegory for Heaven, the Christian God, and His love for human beings and their aspirations. (Full disclosure: I am a lapsed Catholic atheist). The message could be criticized as anti-free will: God has plans for us all. Or it could be welcomed as empowering: the true loves in our life, like baseball for Jackson, are worth pursuing. Either way, it is presented in a bewildering, oblique, almost pandering manner; Jackson’s transformation is not in the least credible; and the conclusion of the book is almost ridiculous. And whether it is a copyediting mistake or not, the “Author” is occasionally referred to with a capital H for Him and His, but most often is not.
Moreover, it is very difficult to recommend to libraries and schools a book that does not indicate anywhere on its cover that it has a religious message, especially when not even in the Epilogue does the author indicate who the “Author” really is. You actually have to go to the final acknowledgements, where the author thanks “the Lord”, and to the endpapers where the publisher invites you to their website for Bible devotions, to be certain. And although it certainly would find its place in private Christian schools, even Catholic schools might find its theology a bit suspect.
Does religion have its place in children’s literature? Absolutely, but preferably when a religious message, especially one that is covert, does not take precedence over the joy of the story. Try Laurel Dee Gugler’s Catching Forever, in which a girl learns to both challenge and appreciate her family’s Mennonite ways, or Rukhsana Khan’s Wanting Mor, where Islam is the only stability in an Afghanistan tortured by war. Or, yes, even one of the many fantasy novels based on various interpretations of paganism, where the only belief expected of the reader is that which you invest while reading.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and has served on the jury of a number of children’s literature awards.
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