Thursday, July 22, 2010

Olive's Ocean (Newbery Honor)

Olive's OceanTitle: Olive's Ocean
Author: Kevin Henkes
Pages: 217
Published: 2003 HarperCollins
My Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5--it's complicated)

I am, admittedly, behind the times with this book.  Since one of the paragraphs in the book made me gasp with shock, I immediately looked up reviews and Google results after I finished reading it.  Guess what I found?  Controversy.

Olive's Ocean is a coming-of-age story of 12 year-old Martha (not Olive) who, spending the summer at her grandmother's home, sorts through many life changes.  I have to say that I liked the writing style.  Great visual word choices, fluid sentences, introspective and varied.  It is quick to read, as the chapters are short and simple, but the content is multifaceted.

The controversy comes in because a few instances of less-than-stellar language, as well as some sexual tension/situations that are far from typical for elementary aged readers.  Honestly, none of this really bothered me except for the aforementioned paragraph.  Although I did find it slightly atypical that a 12 year old would be dealing with kissing boys, hating her mom, and other puberty-esque issues, I can excuse it away.  What I could not excuse away was highlighting the parents sexual relationship.

Hear me out.  I'm not saying that kids should be (or are) ignorant about sex.  I am not saying that the reference was necessarily explicit or harmful.  I am saying that it felt very out of place in both content and writing style, and was completely unnecessary.  It instantly pulled me out of the fictional dream, and it was jarring enough for me that I will think twice before recommending the book.

Judge for yourself: my opinion will not be everyone's.  Most of the book was written in clear, descriptive (almost poetic) prose.
Two orbs of light shone through the window.  Their beams blazed up the wall and slid across the ceiling, interrupting her midsentence.  Then they disappeared.
Martha drew a quick breath inward.  "He's back," she said.
But the section in question, to me, planted a clearer picture than I thought necessary or desirable:
More kissing.  Martha's parents were standing by the sink--kissing and smiling and kissing and laughing and kissing.  If Vince had been around he would have said that his parents were exhibiting MSB. Morning Sex Behavior.
"When they do it in the morning," Vince had informed Martha earlier that summer during one of their nightly chats, "they're all giggly and kissy and weird for at least an hour afterward.  It's unmistakable."
Martha blushed.  She could feel warmth spread through her neck, cheeks, and ears.

Okay.  So, not descriptive, right?  There's way worse stuff out there that our kids are liable to see, yeah?  If our kids are not aware of sex then something's wrong?  Okay.  Sure.  But what about the Newbery Medal on front?  Whether it is meant to or not,  that award connotes something wholesome--something worth having children read--something that doesn't need to be pre-read for content.

I have to say that the older Newbery books are much more impressive to me than the newer ones.  The more I read of the recent award winners, the more I am disappointed.  I'm starting to feel like I'm watching the Oscars or a presidential election: oozing with politics, losing sight of where it started, and oh so politically correct.  The disappointing part isn't that it is all low quality, rather it is like looking at what could have been a masterpiece if not for the glaring blemish.

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