Anyone remember Beverly Cleary’s celebrated series of Ramona novels? The eight books centering on the childhood of one Ramona Quimby captured my attention early. I remember reading about Ramona’s sister Beezus arguing with her mother as to whether or not they’d made a wrong turn in the car. I remember how Ramona squeezed an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink for the simple, irascible joy of it. I remember something else, too: Happiness was a rare commodity. The characters were always dealing with some sort of trouble, be it financial or academic or sartorial or interpersonal. The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Vanderkam praises the novels’ “harder edge,” calling them “a story of survival” and “one of the best portrayals, ever, of an American family’s wrenching journey into the modern economy.” I think she’s right—and I also think that’s why I eventually shelved Ramona. See, as a child I was frightened by the thought of parents squeezed by circumstances beyond their control, of near-empty refrigerators and potential divorces and unsure affections between family members. Such subjects simply felt too big for me. That’s why I wish Taryn Souders’ Dead Possums Are Fair Game had been around. Cast in the Cleary mold, it keeps its protagonist’s problems kid-sized while retaining plenty of wacky action and engaging characters.
Ella Hunter knows things are about to get bad because last night it started drizzling. Sure, into every life a little rain must fall, but problems for Ella are inevitably accompanied by precipitation. What happened right before both before her father broke his leg and her pet turtle fled its cage? Yup, you guessed it: Rain. What Ella doesn’t realize, though, is that this particular thundershower is about to bring a whole bevy of new woes with it. A long-term house visit with her meddling aunt. A leg broken in dramatic fashion. A major math project that’ll determine the course of her summer. And one very dead possum who makes a miraculous kickball “catch.” Solitary, super-organized, socially awkward, arithmophobic Ella is about to face all her fears at once—and learn that doing so can bring unexpected blessings.
For some time, critics have pooh-poohed didactic children’s literature, calling it stilted and stuffy. I wish they would read Dead Possums. At its heart, it’s an educational book, a novel dedicated to some of the finer points of basic math. But it’s also a novel with characters and conflict, plot and pacing, settings and similes. While Souders pays ample attention to facts and themes, she never forgets the fundamentals of storytelling and shows a great talent for penning slapstick hijinks. Ella’s various travails wrung more than a few chuckles and winces from me. So did her all-too-human flaws. Her overweening fastidiousness, her fear of numbers, her need to keep control over her immediate context at all times—I can identify with all of them (as can, I suspect, most bookish introverts). She struggles with issues so commonplace as to become almost archetypal, issues that are weighty while never completely eclipsing the basic joy of living. And you know what? That makes them far more powerful to me than any seemingly shoehorned-in social agenda.
(Picture: Copyright 2015 by Chris Piascik; used under fair use)