Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O'Connor

Barbara O'Connor has quite a gift with words. The cadence of the sentences using repetition, sounds, and great voice, hooked me into the story from page one. Interestingly, not much happens in this story and for an impatient reader like myself it says a lot when I can't put a realistic fiction book down because I'm so engrossed in the setting and character voices.  Popeye makes a temporary friend with Elvis who lives in a mobile trailer with a family of eight that has become stuck in the mud by his house. Popeye lives with his overprotective Grandma Velma, and uncle that is in and out of jail. He is bored and wants an adventure. When he and Elvis find floating boats in the nearby creek with messages, they track down the writer of them.

At first I thought this would be a good read aloud because of the beautiful writing, but the content has name calling and adults swatting kids. It is a part of the book's humor, but I just had a 4th grader name-calling and hurting other students feelings in my library. As an educator, I don't want to reinforce bad behavior, but the reality of life is that people name-call and you have to deal with it. In this story the name-calling is a part of the humor such as when Elvis calls his brother "A toe-jam tattletale." When they form the Spit and Swear Club it reminded of the time my brothers taught me some swear words. The author captures Popeye's thrill at doing something he knows he shouldn't be doing quite well. "Then the boy let loose with a string of the most amazing and wonderful swearwords that ...made [Uncle] Dooley look like a harp-strumming angel." I like that the book is not didactic but it will require some discussion as a classroom read aloud.

The families are poor and live in South Carolina, although Popeye is not illiterate. Their accents have them complaining about the "dern rain" or exclaiming "What in the name of sweet Bernice in heaven is that?" or kids calling each other "hog-stinkin' sack of nothin'" Popeye gets a vocabulary word each week from Velma that is challenging. He applies it to his situations as he tries to determine right from wrong. After reading hundreds of books that use this technique of defining words to young readers, I find it has become cliched for me and annoying. It is well done so it might not bother you, but personally I am tired of the technique.

Popeye's character is one that just follows Elvis who has an attitude and prides himself in not caring what adults think of him. While Elvis bucks authority figures, Popeye finds this an entirely new experience as he disobeys Velma in his quest to find the floating boat-maker. Velma responds to Popeye's disobedience by just swatting him, versus talking about what he is doing. I kept waiting for some revelation at the end where Velma finally sits down and asks Popeye what was going on, but she never does. While her high vocabulary suggests she's smart, her actions show otherwise. Her disinterest, while realistic, left me wondering what the character arc of Popeye was throughout the novel. I think it is that he is no longer bored because he makes a friend with Scarletta.

A funny character trait that Velma has it that she recites the kings and queens of England so she won't "crack up." This play on words throughout the story adds terrific irony because Velma means that she doesn't want to get dementia and lose her mind but her life situation is "cracked up" from her daughter and husband that abandoned their son Popeye for her to raise. Toss in Velma's irresponsible son, Dooley, that accidentally shot Popeye in the eye with a BB gun when he was three and that is in-and-out of trouble with the law, and the reader realizes most would be crazy dealing with all the troubles she has on her doorstep. A book that will make you "Yoo-hoo."

4 Smileys

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