Monday, May 6, 2013
Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
Allegories can be discombobulating - at least for me - because the literal interpretation happens by creating meaning between symbols. If you can't connect the dots you are not going to get it. The symbols in this book represent the transition from childhood to young adult. Jack's bike is stolen by the hated, germy "girl" at the beginning and he sets off to get it back with his two best friends. The imaginary land of Hokey Pokey has no adults and the landscape is part-fantasy, part-Wild West, where the Tattooer is a piece of playground equipment and kids bikes are horses that travel in herds. As Jack chases after the girl others notice his tattoo disappearing which suggests, "it's time..." to leave the Hokey Pokey. But Jack's isn't sure he wants to leave.
The made-up words tickle and the sentences oftentimes read like poetry. The language is quite unique and is what kept me engaged versus the simple storyline. Spinelli loves the written word and it shows. The kids hear "crickets clickit," they are "kidderpillars," and they make "pickerpoke yipping" noises. "The air smells of girl and burnt rubber" and "how-schmow" can that be? He captures the sillynilly kid-speak of youth and their imaginary worlds like no other book I've read."His screams are so forceful they blow a bulge in the make-do hood" or "He feels a fillip of fear for Dusty, for he knows how ornery this girl can be." The poetic word, "fillip" means to propel and is an example of Spinelli's many poetic alliterations.
I can't say I loved the start. It isn't linear. Shucks, it isn't really what you can call a start. The reader is dropped into the imaginary land of Hokey Pokey. I thought at first I was in the mind of a seven or eight-year-old mainly because of the squishy Wanda monster and going into the mind of the Destroyer or bully who is playing in a dump truck at a park. Later, as the story takes shape and more dialogue appears, I realize that Jack is older. More around ten-years-old. I think the author purposefully keeps the age vague so the reader will give it his or her own age; thus, reflecting the transition from imaginary play-worlds to a grown-ups world.
The subplot involving the birth of a playground bully, called the Destroyer, is interesting. He wants to dominate and instill fear in others because of his anger over older kids bullying him. When Jack exposes the bully for who he is, he teaches others kids how to to deal with him. The point of view is in the mind of the bully in the beginning, but after Jack talks to the other kids we don't go back into the bully's mind. I really liked the exploration into the Destroyer's psyche and would have liked popping back into his mind after the "Jackaroo" incident.
The ending evokes the sadness I feel when looking back on my childhood and thinking of how much fun I had playing and imagining pretend-worlds with my best friend. Our adventures started every morning walking to school, where the snow bank was a cliff and the street a raging river that instantly killed if you fell into it. The hill in the backyard was mount Everest and the trees were our horses. This story will surely elicit similar stories in older readers. This nostalgia is similar to how I felt after reading The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, a book that recreates the joy of believing in the imaginary world of talking reindeer and elves and a jolly man in a red suit. Spinelli's use of Wild West imagery where the sun sets on childhood is poignant, but I wonder if it and all the symbolism will be lost on younger readers.
The question for me is who will be drawn to this book or is it more a literary piece that is better for teachers and requires adults to help the reader connect the dots? Maybe the imaginary world will draw young readers in or will it confuse them like an abstract painting? Will middle schoolers like to look at back and will they understand something that adults process and hold more dear as they age? I'm not sure. You'll have decide yourself because "That's what it's all about!"
Reading Level: 4.3