Review of the Day: Jo Jo Makoons by Dawn Quigley, ill. Tara Audibert
I purchase the adult materials for my library system. Just this year, I ran across an interesting book called We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff. And looking at it, it got me to thinking about children’s books. The world of children’s literature right now is attempting to counteract decades and decades’ worth of all-white children’s literary publishing. To that end we’re seeing a small uptick in the number of titles representing BIPOC voices. This is a good thing, but I do get a little worried when the bulk of the books I see are deadly serious and meaningful. True parity only comes when you get more goofball lit. More humor. More laughs. And sadly, the one thing you can say about Indigenous children’s literature is that very little of it could be counted as funny. That’s where the Jo Jo Makoons series comes in. The first early chapter book to come out of the new Native focused imprint of Harper Collins, Heartdrum, this is a hoot. Funny and smart, with a sly sense of humor that’s entirely its own, prepare for a series that you’ll want to see much more of in the future.
Things aren’t good. Jo Jo, a seven-year-old Ojibwe kid living with her Mom and Kokum, has always been best friends with Fern. And Fern seems the same as always, except when it comes to lunch. It used to be she’d always sit with Jo Jo. Now she’s sitting with other kids. What is going on? Between this mystery, an accident (in every sense of the word) involving her cat at school, and a serious case of artistic jealousy, Jo Jo’s keeping everyone around her on their toes (including herself!).
Look, I can probably tell you right off the bat why I like Jo Jo more than a large chunk of other early chapter book heroines out there. While I do consider the early chapter book to be the most difficult kind of book to find for emerging readers, that isn’t to say that gobs of them come out every year. Spunky, plucky girls are the name of the game, and they make up the bulk of the offerings. Now in a typical book of this sort, the girl is a good-hearted gem. She tries to do the right thing, is annoyed by some kind of sibling, makes mistakes but acknowledges them, and is generally a stand up and cheer kinda gal. I do not find these heroines interesting. You may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I like my protagonists vinegary. Undoubtedly that’s why I like Jo Jo as much as I do. This kid has some issues to work out! Sure you identify with her. Heck, I probably identified WAY to much with her tendency to think “If my friend is acting differently I won’t say anything and maybe everything will just go back to normal.” That was practically my M.O. back in the day. But she also makes some serious lapses in judgment. I’m talking name calling and bad decisions and more. Now THAT is a character I can sell to a kid.
I was also impressed by the degree to which Ms. Quigley was able to display Jo Jo’s teacher’s shortcomings without coming right out and saying anything. Jo Jo attends the classroom of a guy that she only ever really calls Teacher. This is a well-meaning white guy that has a tendency to miss a LOT of what’s actually going on in his classroom. I love the little moments the author works in with this guy. For example, at one point the teacher tells Jo Jo to stop drawing art because it’s language arts time. And when she points out that she loves Ojibwe language and Ojibwe art he gets teary eyed. There’s a lot going on in this slim little book.
I would be amiss in not tipping my hat fully to illustrator Tara Audibert as well. A cartoonist and animator with her own studio, Ms. Audibert is of Wolastoqey/French heritage and brings to the book the energy it so rightly requires. Now the other day I was reading a picture book and an acquaintance pointed out to me that the Mexican-American father in the book had been drawn with exactly the right haircut. That was kind of an eye-opening thing to hear. In a flash I realized that as a reviewer I am sometimes inadequate to properly judge such details as hair, dress, etc. in children’s book art. So when I look at the pictures in this book I can’t for certain say that Chuck’s hair or grandma’s scarf are right or wrong. What I can say is that I really enjoyed what Ms. Audibert was laying down here. I loved looking at the quality of her lines. There’s an image of the class lined up in the hall where you can really appreciate the ways in which she’s managed to pack in all those kids with all those faces, never covering someone up or making a face appear twice. And then there are the expressions. The page where Jo Jo is tucking her lips under her gums at her teacher actually makes me laugh out loud when I see it. World’s worst innocent expression.
So, yup. Funny. Written by a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. Great art. A character you’d actually want to follow from book to book. Look, you’re not seeing an overwhelmingly large number of truly spectacular early chapter books coming out every year. You should be, but you’re not. Give thanks, then, for the mere existence of this series. Cause the way I see it, when you’ve got a book that’s this much of a slam-dunk, you grab it up real quick.
On shelves May 11th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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