Sunday, March 8, 2015

Book Review: The Zebra Wall by Kevin Henkes (1988)

Adine is the oldest of five sisters, all of whom have been named in alphabetical order. Her mother is expecting a new baby, and everyone just assumes it will be a girl. When their mother's labor begins a month early, the girls begin to prepare the nursery with an F-themed decor, according to family tradition, and all of the girls eagerly anticipate meeting their new little sister. When the baby turns out to be a boy, no one - including Adine's mom, who is deemed unable to have anymore children - knows quite how to react. In the meantime, Adine locks horns with her aunt Irene, who comes to help out the family, but whose husky body, obsession with cats, and pushy attitude embarrass Adine.

Everything about this book is very 80s. The cover features children wearing hairstyles and clothing long forgotten, and the adults in the story smoke in front of the kids. Parents are not yet able to find out the sex of their unborn children during routine ultrasounds, and they photograph their children using Polaroid cameras.The kids play with Cabbage Patch Preemies and Fisher Price people and there are references to Willard Scott's regular appearances on the Today show. For adults, the nostalgia abounds, but kids are unlikely to feel the same sense of warmth toward these now-obscure references.

As a story, it has much in common with sit-coms of the day. Aunt Irene is so outlandish, she is nearly a caricature. Her gruffness and her obsession with cats seem like such cliched characteristics to give to an unpleasant relative, and though she is redeemed and even appreciated by the end of the story, she still lacks the depth that Henkes gives to other characters in his later novels. But really, the thrill of reading this book comes from the knowledge that Henkes does go on to write much better stories. It is remarkable that the same man who writes such lyrical novels as Olive's Ocean and Junonia is also the author of this light sitcom of a novel. To note the evolution from this book to those is just so interesting.

The Zebra Wall is a fun family story, and it is a lot like Ten Kids, No Pets and Eleven Kids, One Summer, two novels by Ann M. Martin which I read over and over again in childhood. Even the alphabetical names are common to both families. I don't think The Zebra Wall holds up too well for today's audiences, but anyone who can remember the late 80s should get a kick out of it.

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