Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little town on the prairie

This weekend I needed a short book on cassette for the car and other places in the house and so popped in the non-teen, non-current Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements. This title is on the nominations list for this year's Young Readers Choice Award and I like to have a passing familiarity with the books in case kids ask me (I think my vote would be for To Dance but then I love the ballet). It was just three hours, so I don't think I lost much valuable listening time.

Young Ted Hammond is the only sixth grader in his one-room schoolhouse on the plains of Nebraska. He's going to inherit the family farm, but -- in the meantime -- is an obedient, studious loner who loves a good mystery. One day while cycling his paper route, he sees a face in the window of an abandoned farmhouse and becomes determined to get to the bottom of the puzzle. He finds two kids and a mom -- dad has recently been killed in Iraq -- whose car broke down on their way to Colorado. They needed to make a quick exit from Texas, as they felt threatened by an insistent soldier, and they are still feeling the need to lay low in case he is following them. Ted befriends the daughter, April, bringing them food and other supplies. But Ted lives in a very small town, and he finds it very hard both to help them and keep their presence a secret.

Andrew Clements just knows how to write these simple, yet interesting, books for mid and upper elementary readers. He can bring in some big ideas and keep them on an appropriate level. Room One is no exception -- homelessness, the Iraq war, and dying rural communities all are included. I enjoyed the reader, Keith Nobbs, who read with a boyishness that sounded utterly authentic. He was smart, curious, and never sounded like an adult trying to sound like a child. He infused all the small-town characters with life and affection. Through his interpretation, you wanted to meet all the kind and sympathetic people living in Red Prairie, NE. Perhaps more importantly, Ted (and Nobbs) make you want them to keep living there -- even though you yourself have no interest whatsoever in living that rural life.

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