Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

Tess Brooks is superstitious. She comes by it naturally, as the daughter of a lobsterman who lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. Good luck and bad are all intertwined with Tess's life in and around boats. When the state threatens to shut down her island school, the residents of the island decide to meet the minimum attendance numbers by taking in foster children. And since the Brooks family would have to move to the mainland if this experiment doesn't work, Tess is wishing harder than ever that things will go in their favor. But Aaron Spinney isn't anything like the foster kids Tess has read about in books, and it's pretty obvious that they are going to need more than good luck to make things turn out the way everyone hopes.

Cynthia Lord struck gold with her Newbery-honor winning debut Rules, and Touch Blue is a sophomore effort that delivers. The people she writes about are representative of those you might find on an island like Bethsaida; characters that are quirky and yet lovable at the same time. Everyone knows everyone else's business here, and as Tess puts it, that's both good (if you need help) and bad (if you want to keep something to yourself). Tess and her sister Libby are typical island kids, skilled at working the grapevine to get what they want and used to living in a community that's just like one big extended family. Everyone takes part in island-wide picnics and celebrations that sound like something out of time gone by. Readers might long for the beautiful surroundings that the Brooks girls enjoy, and even the most land-locked will relish Lord's vivid descriptions of the ocean. 

Aaron Spinney is the character that brings tension into the Brooks' happy lives, both by virtue of the need for his presence (the island families must keep enrollment up or the school will close) and because of his troubled past. Aaron's been through a lot, going into foster care after his grandmother's death and his mother's loss of her parental rights. He does not want to be on Bethsaida, and he makes that plain right away. No matter how much Tess tries to engage Aaron in island life, he isn't convinced. Since he entered the system, Aaron's lived in several homes; it pains Tess that he talks about his placements by number, and she worries that their home will be just another stop in the progression for Aaron. Tess is determined to make a difference for Aaron, and that determination leads her into areas that will ultimately make things even tougher for everyone. There's a great lesson in this, about good intentions that lead to unwise actions, and this adds to the realism not only of the plot but also of the characters.

Lord does an extraordinary job of making her characters multi-dimensional. Tess is conflicted over her desire to help Aaron and her selfish wish to be able to stay on Bethsaida. Aaron is driven by his need to reconnect with his past, even as he wants to build a future. Tess's parents, like most of the adults, aren't perfect either, which is enormously reassuring (I can't stand it when fictional parents always know what to do and are completely clued in to what their kids are feeling -- so not the way life actually is!). Eben Calder, Tess's nemesis, is less finely drawn. He's antagonistic towards Aaron and generally tries to make Tess's life miserable, but his motivations for doing so aren't immediately apparent (though we do get some hint of it as the novel unfolds). Still, this is a small detail in an otherwise finely rendered novel, one that the majority of readers will be willing to overlook.

Overall Touch Blue is an honest and realistic novel about the complexities of forming a family, and deciding what's really important in the quest to be true to yourself. For me this is on par with Pictures of Hollis Woods or The Great Gilly Hopkins as an authentic look at the experience of foster families from all angles.

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, published by Scholastic Press
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample quote "Standing on the road beside Aaron, I don't tell him he hurt my feelings. I don't ask why he doesn't try even a little. I don't point out that he has to live somewhere, and at least we want him. And I don't admit the thing I'm most scared of."

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