You know what else is tough? Being the mama, helping your children grow up. I’m doing it. (Confession: this might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.)
In my quest to read books that are the talk of the Newbery prognosticators, I finally got around to reading Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder. I ordered it from the library months and months ago, and had even brought it home to read way back then, but I never got around to it. This time I was determined, and it turns out that it was the right book at the right time for me.
What, you might ask, does the last paragraph have to do with the first two questions I posed in this post? Plenty. You see, Orphan Island is an extended metaphor for growing up, for transitioning into adolescence, for entering puberty, for whatever else you want to call that transition from little-kid to straining-toward-adulthood. While this book is obviously written for a juvenile audience, there was plenty for this forty-three year old woman to glean from it. It’s the story of Jinny, one of the oldest kids on Orphan Island. At the beginning of the book, she gets her own Charge, or orphan she’s supposed to care for, delivered by the mysterious green boat that delivers new children and takes away old children. This Changing took Jinny’s best friend, Deen, and replaced him with a little girl named Ess. Jinny misses Deen and chafes against the responsibility of Ess. Then things begin to go a bit sideways on their perfect island, which up until this point had provided everything the nine orphans who live there (always nine orphans) ever need. It’s hard to tell, though, who or what is changing: Jinny or the island. And then Jinny makes a decision that has some downright dire consequences.
This feels a bit like a dystopian novel, mostly because until the reader figures out it’s a metaphor, she spends a lot of time scratching her head about the meaning of Changing and Cares and Elders. However, the metaphor puts a fine point on the ending of childhood and the beginning of what it means to be an adult. All of this is compounded by the fact that the Elders are responsible for their Cares, so in addition to their own growing pains (both physical and emotional), they have to think about the little kids whom they love. It’s emotionally complicated but very true to real life.
I’ve dipped into a bit of the conversation around this year’s Newbery. From what I’ve seen, this is one of the more polarizing books (at least on Goodreads). People either love it or hate it. I definitely fall in the first camp. Louise, age twelve, read it and liked it “okay.” Will the Newbery committee love it? I don’t know, but this forty-three year old mother of two girls on the cusp of growing up got a lot out of it. (Highly Recommended. (HarperCollins, 2018)