Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing

Burnham, Molly B. The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing
January 17, 2023 by Dial Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus
Ten-year-old Dottie lives with her mother, father, and four-year-old sister Jazzy. Her grandmother, Ima, has passed away, and one day her Grandpa Walter shows up at the family door ready to move in. He takes Dottie's room, uses the bathroom when she needs to get in to get ready for school, and carries around a Chock full o'Nuts can with Ima's ashes in it that he converses with. Dottie struggles with emotions surrounding this change, and frequently compares them to animals. Her best friend is Sam, and the two have a plan to build a tree house. At first, they don't want to tell any adults and want to build it themselves, but they eventually have to ask for some help. They also get help from Miles Huckatony, a neighbor who has previously been quite unhelpful. Grandpa Walter continues to stay with the family, and even asks to paint Dottie's room green because Ima likes the color. Dottie eventually hatches a plan to hide the coffee can from her grandfather, hoping that this will help him move on. Will this be an effective strategy?
Strengths: It's fairly common for children Dottie's age to lose a grandparent; my grandmother died when I was 11, after spending the summer with my family. There are not too many books that address this. Dottie's interest in building the tree house, partly because Ima always wanted one, gives a little more framework to the story of processing grief. Her friendship with Sam is good to see, and her growing understanding of the challenges that Miles faces is a good example of understanding others. I especially appreciated that while Dottie was somewhat put out by losing her room, she was generally fairly understanding about her grandfather's presence, and didn't complain all that much. 
Weaknesses: I couldn't help worrying that Grandpa Walter was descending into dementia and really should be assessed by a medical professional. At the very least, he should have gotten some grief counseling. The parents should not have let him talk to the coffee can with young children in the house. 
What I really think: I can see this being a successful book in an elementary school, but Dottie seemed very young for ten. Between the description of her emotions as animals, her belief that zombies lived in a house in the neighborhood, and the fact that she and Sam thought that they could build a tree house with no help and without anyone knowing, I think that older readers will struggle to connect with her. 

Maybe this hit a little close to home. I'm not sure why people in the generation right before the Baby Boomers don't seem to understand that people die. My father, who was also Walter, was shocked when my mother died, even though she had Parkinson's and had become completely bed ridden. Had he carried around her ashes, there would definitely have been some intervention. When my father died in September, it was a little unexpected, but since he was 88, I pretty much expected every day to be his last. Then, one day, it was. 

Glaser, Karina Yan. The Vanderbeekers on the Road (Vanderbeekers #6)
January 4th 2023 by HarperCollins US
Public library copy

Having found a letter from their father's father written years ago, and outlining a trip across the US in a van that was never completed because of the grandfather's unexpected death, the Vanderbeekers, along with Mr. B. and his young ward Orlando, decide to take the grandfather's van, which they have borrowed from the friend who owns it, and pick up their father so that they can celebrate his 40th birthday. He's stuck in the midwest after travel plans hit snags, so they want to pick him up and then continue to their aunt's house in California. The van is very crowded, since they also have some animals with them, and pick up more along the way. I did not know that chicken diapers existed! The big concern for the youngest members of the family are that the two older children are hoping to sneak off to an interview for a college program in California. This would mean that the siblings would not stay in Harlem, so the younger kids actively sabotage the plans. The cruel college people have no patience when they are late, but there is one appointment that they can keep, so Jessie lets Oliver take it. There is a surprise romantic gesture, and after almost a month on the road, the Vanderbeekers head home, more tired, wiser, and glad to be in their familiar stomping grounds after their grand adventure. 
Strengths: This is lighthearted and upbeat. No one dies! The children have their squabbles, but they get along surprisingly well in a cramped van for so long. They truly seem to enjoy being in each other's company, which might be why this series is so popular with teachers and librarians. It reminds us of The Brady Bunch, and gives us the family that we didn't really have. (Or maybe did; I just have one brother.) It's similar to The Penderwicks or Enright's The Melendeys, and is populated with intriguing characters who interact with the family. 
Weaknesses: As an adult, I have questions about the Vanderbeeker's timelines; everything seems to happen more quickly than would be realistic, and there's a lot of coincidence and luck that lets them get away with poor planning and lack of thought. Mr. B. quits his academic job because he's a little annoyed? Does he know how lucky he is? And he just thinks he'll get another one? Things like this, that irritate me a LOT will not be noticed by the target demographic, in the same way that I never questioned Cuffy's presence in the Melendy household. My rant on this is almost 12 years old. 
What I really think: Frequent readers know that I love a children's classic, and also that my students do not. I hadn't bought the first book in this series until it ended up on the Battle of the Books list, and then I purchased the series, figuring that once kids read the first, they would want the rest. They did not. I feel bad, since Yan Glaser is such a lovely person, and her writing is really well done and fun to read, but the characters and situations are just not resonating with my students. There's been more interest in her A Duet for Home. This might see more circulation in an elementary library, or middle school libraries in New York City or where the librarian is super excited about these books. 

I do absolutely adore the covers. 

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