Hokey Pokey


I’m reading Hokey Pokey again.

Hokey Pokey is my best hope and prediction for the 2014 Newbery Medal.

Reading Hokey Pokey  the first time thrilled me from beginning to end.  It made me excited to be a reader.  It made me excited to want to try to write bravely and imaginatively for children and young people.

Hokey Pokey  is the main reason I started this blog.

I should clarify the prior statement.  After I first read Hokey Pokey last summer I wanted a place to freely explore and express the range of my thoughts and quandaries concerning the book.   That seed germinated as this website, although I haven’t followed through in exploring any of those specific thoughts about this book here until now.

After I read Hokey Pokey, I was afraid to read other people’s reviews of it.  I told myself that this was because I didn’t want other reviews to taint the thoughts and wording of my own review.  I didn’t want to inadvertently plagiarize.

Here is a part of the review of Hokey Pokey I wrote for my school district’s library media website:

This novel is an adventure, a mystery, a puzzle, a fable, and a poem. There is so much to love, but there may be a little bit of a learning curve for some readers to get used to the switching narrative viewpoints and Spinelli’s inventive and playful wordsmithery. However, once inside they will enjoy this wild, idiosyncratic childhood kingdom and the characters who inhabit it. I found this to be a refreshingly unique and complex middle grade novel, and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in a long time. It feels like an instant classic to me.

But I think I truly avoided reviews because I didn’t want to get too discouraged about this book that had so inspired me, because I could sense that there would be things about this book that would cause consternation to certain adult readers.  I did run across a number of grumblings in forums I follow, many from people whose minds seemed to have been made up before they even started to read the book, or after having read only a handful of pages.  I was hoping those types of readers would be the minority.  Perhaps what I am more afraid of is finding that those types of readers were not the minority of my teacher and librarian colleagues.

Some of those negative, close-the-book-do-not-buy-it responses I have seen do make me sad, and bring a number of questions.  Are those adults who deride this book actually showing themselves to be unadventurous, closed-minded, or even ignorant and illiterate in their responses?  Have they fully internalized the fears and prejudices of the worst reluctant readers as their own, and in the process buried or forgotten any love of excellent, challenging writing that they once might have had?  Or are Jerry and I and the few other adults who love this book just people with an extremely high tolerance for weirdness and terrible stories, and everyone else is right to deride this book?

If this book is in fact a failure and it wins nothing and falls into total obscurity, that’s okay, but I want it to be because children don’t like it and really can’t connect with it.  What I am afraid is happening is that kids are not being given the ability to connect with it because of too many grumpy, unadventurous adult gatekeepers who refuse to even attempt to appreciate it themselves.

If Hokey Pokey wins the Newbery, it will likely irk a lot of those people.  That’s not why I want it to win the Newbery, but it certainly would be an added bonus.

I want it to win so that some of those irked people might give it a second chance, or a first real chance.  I want some of those people to open themselves up to the playfulness of the language and the imaginative strangeness of the setting.  I want them to take the time to look out at this fascinating world of childhood through these characters’ eyes, and identify with them.  The unconventional elements of this book need not be viewed as impediments to children but as creative and engaging hooks into a truly adventurous and mysterious story that I believe is extremely relatable and could be very satisfying to young readers. I think the words of the author of A Wrinkle in Time,  another wonderfully unusual book both beloved and derided by many readers young and old, may apply to Jerry Spinelli and Hokey Pokey:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
? Madeleine L’Engle

Map of Hokey Pokey

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