Introducing Jo HacklOver two years ago I had the pleasure of sharing Jo Hackl's path to publication. (Both Part I and Part II are great reading; Jo shared how she came up with the ideas for the book and the process of acquiring a publisher). Jo and I have been friends through SCBWI-Carolinas for over ten years, and now that her hometown of Greenville, SC is also mine, I proudly claim her as my critique partner also.
It is with great joy and pride in her publishing accomplishment that I share my review of Jo's debut middle grade novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE.
Read these opening paragraphs and hear voice oozing out of every sentence:
Turns out, it's easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketfuls of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for-merchandies from Thelma's Cash 'n' Carry grocery store.
The hard part was getting up the guts to go.
It happened like this: There I was in Thelma's produce section, running my fingers up and down a bundle of collards. Collards never did make for good eating, but I was wondering if maybe they were some kind of sign that it was time for me to skedaddle. Collards always reminded me of Mama. She used to make me drawing paper out of collards, sumac seeds, dryer lint, and newspaper Daddy chopped up in his wood chipper. She plunked things in her paper the way other people stuck things in scrapbooks. Thread from the hem of her wedding dress, a four-leaf clover, Daddy's first gray hair. Mama's paper held so much life, it made my drawings pop off the page.
That was the kind of Mama and Daddy I used to have. (p.1-2)
Who wouldn't keep reading after a hook like that?
Soon the reader discovers that Cricket is on a quest to find Mama who ran off and left her with Aunt Belinda. Taking a cricket who she names Charlene, a little bit of food, her father's pocketknife, a doogaloo, and a small notebook full of Mama's paper, she sets off.
By nightfall she gets to the woods near her family's property. Here is a setting description that I used in my writing classes this summer: "The woods smelled like a hundred and fifty years of dark. A goose-bumpy ghost-town kind of dark."(p. 19)
She climbs into the tree house that "smelled like cedar, clean and wild," which her father built before he died. There, she reviews a letter addressed to her mother indicating her Grandmother's tombstone was to be placed on March 1-- in exactly eleven days. On it her mother had scrawled before, "I'm off looking for my birds." This brings back memories of all the times her mother left to find the "Bird Room" so she could prove it was real.
With her few supplies, Charlene to keep her company, hope, and a pocketful of clues, Cricket begins her quest--but first she has to learn how to survive living outdoors.
Like all good stories, Cricket's search has several twists and turns that test her gumption: raccoons steal her food, snow, and a copperhead bite. The last is too much for her to deal with alone and she seeks help from Miss V., an eccentric woman who provides more answers about her mother and the bird room than Cricket could have dreamt of. At the same time that the story moves forward, the author provides bits and pieces of backstory that help put the puzzle pieces together.
SMACK DAB is not only a story of outdoor survival or putting puzzle pieces together. It is also a story of a young person coming to grips with her mother's mental illness. Beautifully woven into the text is Cricket's slow realization that her mother's behavior was eccentric, unexplainable, and unstable. Like Laura in CRAZY by Linda Phillips, Cricket begins to see a different picture:
What about all the sharp looks in the grocery store? The looks at Mama. The looks at me.
If my mama was crazy, just what exactly did that make me?
The floorboards felt like they were shifting. Nothing felt solid. I grabbed hold of the wall.
Is this what going crazy feels like? (p. 141)
After I finished reading SMACK DAB I told Jo, "When I grow up I want to be like Cricket." Readers young and old will be inspired by Cricket's courage and spunk--as well as her love for her mother and the truth. And of course, also for her love for the outdoors.
Just in case my review didn't sufficiently entice you, here is the trailer:
|I took this picture when Jo hand-delievered|
the ARC to my house!