One of the toughest things about being a kid is, well, adults. And we're talking about things way more serious than bedtimes or what videogames are allowed; mundane rules are only the beginning. Adult pain, due to events like divorce or the loss of a child, seeps into the world of kids, who can neither control nor fully grasp the circumstances.
If topics like divorce and death sound heavy, Madison author Kevin Henkes' new young-adult novel, Bird Lake Moon, wears them surprisingly gently. While dealing with the family struggles of two boys, Mitch Sinclair and Spencer Stone, the book retains a sweet, sun-dappled quality, largely due to its setting, a fictional resort town about two hours from Madison.
Mitch's father has recently left his mother for a co-worker, and Mitch and his mom will soon be looking for a new place to call home. In the meantime, they're spending part of the summer with Mitch's grandparents.
Spencer's family is still coping with the aftershocks of the drowning of Spencer's elder brother. It happened eight years ago, when Spencer was only 2. Returning to the family cottage for the summer, next door to where Mitch is staying, the Stones hope to find out whether they can reclaim Bird Lake as a place for happy family memories, or if it will always be, first and foremost, the place where one of their children died.
As one would expect in a novel aimed at grades five through nine, these events are presented with a directness appropriate to teens and preteens, not adult-level complexity. Mitch and Spencer are sensitive, smart kids, but they're not mini-adults. They shoulder their family's problems along with more minor irritants, like the sometimes gruff manner of Mitch's grandmother or Spencer's wacky little sister, who at 7 dons an ever-growing cast of theatrical personas.
Henkes' prose tends toward the deft and spare. Here's his sketch of the night Mitch's parents split up: "He had called that night to say that he was going to live with someone else, someone from his office. Mitch hated thinking of that night - his mother pressing apologies upon him, and then her silence and the way she kept hugging him, her shoulder bending his nose back until he had to squirm away."
What drama emerges throughout the novel - such as Spencer's thinking their vacation house might be haunted - is realistic, not fanciful, grounded in the believable actions of real kids. The book maintains the melancholy yet hopeful tone of Henkes' Olive's Ocean, which received the Newbery Honor and mined similar emotional territory.
Young readers are likely to be drawn in by Henkes' acknowledgment of both the big and small issues in their lives, from major family changes to what it feels like to reach out tentatively to a new friend.