Review: Bluffton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
Publish date: July 23, 2013
obtained on NetGalley

Because I received this as an electronic advanced review copy via NetGalley, I read it on my iPad. I can’t wait to get my hands on a print copy not only to see the illustrations in color, but also to see the nuanced details that just can’t be replicated electronically. That being said – read it however you can get your hands on it.

This delightful graphic novel tells the story of a boy named Henry who lives in Muskegon, Michigan. Life was going along “as usual” until the summer of 1908, “The summer they arrived” (p. 2). Henry befriends a young Buster Keaton who arrived with his family and a group of Vaudeville Actors for the summer months. They return each summer to The Actor’s Colony at Bluffton, founded by Buster’s father Joe Keaton. This book is part historical fiction and part coming of age as the boys play baseball, fish for perch, and execute practical jokes carefully planned by Buster.

I love that a book that features actors – who depend largely on visual – using primarily illustrations. Phelan uses the graphic novel format to enhance the story, not detract from it. He uses just enough text to fill in gaps, but the rest of the story is told on the faces of the characters, the settings, and actions. I think what I’m looking most forward to about reading this in print form is the opportunity to slow down and really read the illustrations. I have a tendency to not read graphic novels slowly enough – this book made me want to go slower.

Matt Phelan’s Website: http://www.mattphelan.com/
Candlewick Publisher Page for Bluffton – there is a link to a flyer about the book including an interview with Matt Phelan

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A Crooked Kind of Perfect

This book has been sitting on my tbr pile for quite a while now. I read Hound Dog True last year (based on my friend Colby Sharp’s gushing about it, yes he gushed) and loved it. Urban is clearly a gifted storyteller, particularly when it comes to character and voice.

I sat down last evening with my daughters for “family reading time” and decided it was time to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I finished it before going to sleep and am still thinking about it today, right now even. I love books that stay with me like that – make me want to go back, reread them, mull over the language, and think about what it is that made me respond this way.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect hits home with me personally in a variety of ways – but I think perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t read it yet is because I needed to read it this week. I’m going to defend my practicum study this thursday. I’ve been working on it for far longer than I thought I would due to a variety of reasons (like breaking my arm). It had gotten to a point where every time I looked at it all I could see was the “crooked” – the holes, and time that felt wasted, and paper that hadn’t been defended. It seemed like I would never finish it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit my ph.d. program in the past two years – just so I wouldn’t have to deal with finishing it.

The chapters in the middle of the book where Zoe decides to quit were so spot on. The way that the sentence length shortens, she blocks out all possibilities, and is just sure that quitting is the only way to go.

Quitting

It is no big deal that I am quitting.
It isn’t.
It really isn’t.
It’s not like quitting the piano.
That would be a tragedy. (p. 84)

What I love about this is that it’s ok for Zoe to quit. She does it for a few pages. Her parents don’t chastise her or push her, they just sit with her, and let her quit. And eventually there is a key change, and she decides not to quit. My husband, writing group and friends have done this for me with my practicum. They have watched me struggle, and listened, and pushed at just the right times. But ultimately I am the one that decided not to quit.

Perfectionism is rampant in our society. It is something that is presented in movies, television shows, the news, books, and each other; often in ways that we aren’t even aware of. We judge each other harshly and don’t stop to acknowledge that there is more to life than first place, a gold medal, or the most money.

Here is a book that celebrates hard work, at something that wasn’t exactly the way Zoe imagines, but that turns out to be about more than being a prodigy, more than getting applause for a performance. It is realistic in so many fabulous possible ways.

Zoe’s mom works hard, she misses some of her daughters events – but Zoe doesn’t hate her for it.

Zoe’s dad lives with OCD, or at least symptoms similar to it. He does not “struggle” with his issues, he lives with them. He is a father who loves not only his daughter and wife, but extends it to another child who needs a positive adult presence in his life.

Zoe deals with friend problems, something not uncommon for middle school aged children. But those problems do not define her, she feels yucky about them and moves on. Just like she does with quitting. This is a book about real people, living real lives.

So this thursday, I will defend my practicum (I might wear multi-colored toe socks). It will not be perfect – because such a thing does not exist. It will however be mine and it will be done and I will move forward with my dissertation and finish. That will by my crooked kind of perfect. I think we’ll get a cake and some Vernor’s to celebrate.