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penny from heaven

30 march 2014

Like Jennifer Holm's later Newbery Honor book Turtle in Paradise, her 2007 Honor novel Penny from Heaven features a just-preadolescent narrator torn between families: a drab New Jersey maternal home and an exotic, organic, gusto-enriched extended paternal family … also in New Jersey, in this book, but a world apart in cultural terms.

Penny turns 12 midway through her own novel … can I digress and complain for a moment about the lethally precise fixation that Newbery juries have with 11-year-old protagonists on the cusp of 12? I understand why such characters are safe for highbrow children's literature: they're as verbally and socially skilled as kids can get without being uncomfortably susceptible to libido. But for crying out loud, to go by the lists of Newbery-approved books, you'd think that the only life-stage of any interest to child readers or their parents would be the threshold of your 12th birthday. Surely there must be some other years to explore. Surely there must be kids who don't develop at the pace so pedantically prescribed by the American Library Association. The ever-narrowing age band for children's-book awards is a kind of censorship, benign enough in intent, but almost comically blinkered when you read as many of these books as I do. Given the rule of thumb that kids like to read books about kids 3 or 4 years older than themselves, there must be a whole heck of a lot of great reading going on the summer a kid turns nine – and precious little before or after.

About 3/4 of Penny from Heaven passes without much transpiring except accumulated exposition. A horde of Penny's relatives get introduced, in a sort of New Jersey Italian analogue to "Shake hands with your Uncle Mike, me boy." Penny's mother's family are generic WASPs, unimaginative, repressed, eating stodgy food. Her late father's family are mercurial, effusive Italian-Americans who live with the utmost brio. For much of the novel, Penny feels trapped by having to live with her surviving parent in a vanilla universe. (Her preferred icecream flavor is butter pecan.) Even worse, her mother starts dating the milkman, a certain Mulligan whose putative Irishness cannot compete with Penny's lived Italianness.

I ought to note that I have a personal fondness for widows who marry the milkman: my grandmother did, giving my father a quarter-century worth of a kind stepfather and me my surname. Despite the languid nature of Holm's narratives, I do value her novels for their convincing lived detail. They are formulaic but not therefore negligible.

At the three-quarters mark, though, events strike with a vengeance, and I should not say more lest I spoil the book for readers. Suffice to say that the event comes out of left field: appropriately enough for a book that has a lot of baseball in it, full of a 1953 Jersey fan's love for the Brooklyn Dodgers. How far in is too far to reveal a book's key events? If the plot hook comes a few pages in, I say reveal it. The cover probably will, anyway. If it comes toward the end, never. Not that Penny from Heaven ever develops much of a plot. Interestingly, the one exciting (if not inciting) event in Penny from Heaven is brought about by the narrators' lively cousin searching for buried treasure – exactly as in the later Turtle in Paradise. One preposterous plot turn may be an accident, but two in different books begin to look like a motif. Holm seems to suggest that the wonders of the world won't make themselves manifest unless we dig for treasure.

Holm, Jennifer L. Penny from Heaven. 2006. New York: Yearling [Random House], 2013. Electronic Edition.