Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Reading Through History: Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm (2016)

It's 1934 in Key West, Florida, and the enterprising Beans is always looking for ways to make a dime. He'll dig through garbage to find tin cans, babysit for local moms, and even run errands for criminals if it means he might be able to afford a sandwich from Pepe's Cafe, and to help out his struggling parents. Because some of the adults in his neighborhood have taken advantage of him and cheated him out of his hard-earned wages, Beans is very suspicious when officials from the government arrive to revitalize Key West and make it a tourist attraction. His skepticism is challenged, however, when it seems that Beans himself will play a key role in helping the New Deal program get off the ground in his hometown.

Full of Beans is the prequel to Turtle in Paradise, and its main character is Turtle's cousin, whom readers will remember as one of the members of the Diaper Gang. Because Beans is a local and not a visitor like Turtle, the sights and sounds of Key West really come to life in his narration. Beans focuses on all the details that kids love in their own neighborhoods, and he provides lots of description that helps readers understand the changes brought about by the New Deal. Beans is also a lovably mischievous character, and his tone throughout the book makes for a lot of funny moments.

This book is interesting primarily because it is the only children's book I know that explores the tension between a community set in its ways and well-meaning, but somewhat ill-informed government officials.  The story really makes this conflict feel very real, and it can invite interesting discussions with kids about the role of government in various situations. It's also nice to have a hopeful story set during the Great Depression. Too often kids' books focus on the tragedies of that time period, and after a while, those depressing (pun intended) titles turn kids off to historical fiction.

I have a couple of quibbles with the book. I felt that the information about Beans's brother contracting worms was unnecessary. I am opposed to toilet humor in children's books in general, but this is especially revolting. I understand that the need for worm medication is a financial problem for Beans, as he keeps needing to help his brother instead of buying what he wants, but I think there were other ways to do this without making the reader feel sick. My other issue is with the cover. It's attractive, but it gives off a definite contemporary realistic fiction vibe. Maybe the hope is that kids will pick it up based on the cover and not realize it's historical until they start reading and fall in love.  But I think it could also wind up creating a bait and switch situation where readers feel they have been tricked and decide not to read the book at all.

Full of Beans was not quite as good as Turtle in Paradise, but it was fun to return to that universe and explore a window into our American past. I don't see Full of Beans as a Newbery contender, but it is a solid, fun read for fans of the author.

No comments:

Post a Comment