I'll admit that aside from reading mostly serious fiction, I read a lot of children's books as well, although only seldom do I review one. To be perfectly honest, most kids' books do not grab me or portray any life lessons, but there are some exceptional authors out there that I praise whenever i have the chance. The benchmark, for me, was set by Kate DiCamillo (almost all of her books) and Suzanne Collins (The Underland Chronicles). Not many authors succeed to come close to this benchmark, but Susan Patron comes very close; very, very close indeed.
The Higher Power of Lucky is an unusual read in the preteen library. Lucky, the main protagonist, could be your typical ten year-old, with a pretty normal ten year-old's mentality. What sets this book apart, aside from Lucky's situation, is the story's setting. Unlike many books in the category where kids typically live happily surrounded by nice things while going on 'an adventure', Lucky's life is anything but this. Her mother recently passed away, her father, whom she never met, lives far away, and her guardian, Brigitte, who came from France, turns out to be her father's first wife. Right there you have enough to set this story apart. But Ms. Patron goes even further: The town where Lucky lives, Hard Pan - population 43, is in the middle of a desert, and its inhabitants live mostly in trailers, old water tanks, and the like. There are no jobs, no prosperity, and more than a few of the inhabitants rely on free government surplus food. There is no school, and Lucky has to travel to school to a better off city, where there are 'fancy restaurants that sprinkle parsley on hamburgers'. The kids Lucky interacts with have their own baggage as well, Lincoln is obsessed with tying knots which he does all the time, and Miles lives with his grandma because his own mother is in jail. There you have it. An amazing slice of life for the young reader.
Lucky has a part time job in the only business in town, the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, where she sweeps the outside after any of the numerous 'tvelwe-step anonymous' meetings, be it alcoholics, smokers, gamblers, or overeaters. Squatting by a hole in the wall, she listens to stories people tell, stories about how they found a 'higher power' to overcome their addictions. Lucky, feeling not so confident and comfortable in her own life, wants to find her own higher power. Although her main concern is her fear that Brigitte is going to abandon her and go back to France, which would mean that Lucky would end up in a foster home, Lucky, throughout the book, deals with an array of other issues as well.
This is a well-crafted story with a strong merit. Lucky is a strong girl, and a reliable narrator. While the settings and issues are not mainstream, do not let this to sway you away from the book. On the contrary, children can learn a lot from this work. After all, the world is not made of magic castles, and this book is a good introduction to reality. Yes, Lucky's reality is likely worse than most of young readers, but it presents a wonderful opportunity to engage younger readers in a conversation with parents. And what better way to spend quality time with your kids than discussing a well-written book.