Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sweet Mysteries of Life: KYLE'S ISLAND by Sally Derby (for Middle Grades, ages 10-13)

The mysteries in KYLE'S ISLAND are the small ones: no criminals, no deaths -- but the poignant puzzles and losses of childhood. This gentle summer novel comes from an experienced author of children's books, Sally Derby (she wrote No Mush Today and The Wacky Substitute, among others). And it has a perfect blend of tension, distress, adventure, and discovery.

Thirteen-year-old Kyle has always gone to the lakeside cottage with his family each summer, where his dad taught him to fish, his mother and grandmother shared merriment with his sisters, and the neighbors all know him and like him. It's a safe place, even for his little brother Josh who's just learning to swim.
I started down the steps to the lake. Halfway down I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, something disturbing the sparse ground cover on the hill. I stood still. Sure enough, there is was again -- a trembling of leaves right beside the next step down. Then I saw it: a little brown toad, half-hidden by a week. I bent down slowly. He didn't move. My hand shot out, and I had him. I cupped him in my palm and looked at him. He squatted there, just tickling the skin a bit. He was all angles and bright eyes. I rubbed my thumb down the skin on his back. It was dry and bumpy.

"Wait till Josh sees him," I said.
But this year is different: Kyle's father moved out. Is he gone forever from the family? Kyle is so angry that he won't even speak with his father on the phone when it rings for his family at a neighbor's cottage. From deciding where to fish to handing the boat and teaching his younger brother the summer skills, everything seems to land on Kyle's shoulders in new and uncomfortable ways. And the worst is yet to come: Because Gram has died, and Kyle's father isn't providing an income, Kyle's mother is going to sell the cottage, uprooting the family's joy. If you can even have real joy when your father has mysteriously left you, that is ...

I loved reading KYLE'S ISLAND. It reminded me of the choices and stresses of summer "before romance," when exploring an island and finding a way to make enough summer income were all-engrossing. And Kyle's struggles with family circumstances, strange neighbors, and sisters who talk more with each other than with him felt very familiar.

For any kid who dreams of summer exploration, this will be a good read. It's also going to be a good discussion starter with youngsters whose parents are making life changes that bring discomfort and even displacement. There's a season of freedom packed into this story, along with a warm armful of hope.

PS: The publisher, Charlesbridge, offers a short activity and discussion guide to accompany the book.

1 comment:

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