Review of the Day: Losers at the Center of the Galaxy by Mary Winn Heider
I’ve told this story before, but I like to mention it periodically. Years ago when I was a children’s librarian in NYC I ran a book club for kids between the ages of 9-12. One conundrum I faced as part of the job was the kids’ rejection of any book with a cover they didn’t immediately gravitate to. I solved this problem by playing a game with them where I would put a bunch of books in inter-library mailing envelopes and then booktalk each one to the kids (a booktalk is sort of like a movie trailer for a book). They’d vote on what title they wanted to read next I’d reveal it, and they’d end up reading books whose jackets and covers they’d normally avoid like the plague. Now I mention all of this in my lead up to Mary Winn Heider’s Losers at the Center of the Galaxy because it is rare that I run across a new novel that is this enticing and good and yet makes me feel an almost painful desire to run a children’s book group again. If I put this book in a bag, imagine how many ways I could sell it to the kids. Would I mention the grieving older brother with a penchant for playing Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” on his tuba? Would I mention the brilliant younger daughter that accidentally ends up with glowing skin before attempting to rescues a terrible football team’s bear mascot? Would I mention the conspiracy of their school’s teachers or the cat-themed pop star or the faux ghost or or OR would I just mention ALL of it at once? I dunno. I do know that this book was cursed with the ugly stick and stuck with a book jacket that does little to imply the wonders inside. If you’re looking for weird, wild, wonderfulness that taps into wackiness yet manages to tug at your heartstrings so belligerently that it’ll bring honest tears to your eyes, Heider’s the one to seek out.
Things are broken. Two years ago football player Lenny Volpe went missing, leaving behind his wife, his son Winston, and his daughter Louise. Winston, the elder child, has coped by sinking deeply into his love of his tuba and his crush/best friend Frenchie. Meanwhile his younger sister Louise has taken a more scientific approach. Knowing that her father received brain damage, suffered during the course of his football career, she has decided to find a cure for the problem. Trouble is, her experiments have a tendency to make her (there’s no good way to put this) glow? That’s strange enough, but soon Winston starts investigating why all the school teachers are up to no good, Louise’s science club gets her hooked on a feline-centric pop star, there’s a bear serving as a mascot for their dad’s old team that’s in need of rescuing , and that’s all before the world’s wackiest halftime show. This family is a little broken but with a little talking and a lot of understanding, maybe it’s something these two kids can fix.
An ode to a first page. Good first pages are beauties to behold. This is true of any novel, whether it’s written for a twenty-year-old or a twelve-year-old. Of course, with a children’s book the bar is a bit higher. The thing I retained from my years doing baby and toddler storytimes is that children are not here to buoy your adult self-esteem. And just like a 2-year-old that finds your rendition of Little Bunny Foo Foo dull to the extreme, so too does a ten-year-old not care a jot about your book if you haven’t hooked them right from the start. I imagine a kid that sees this book. They flip to the beginning to see if there’s anything on the first page that will grab their attention and there they see an immediate description of two people named Winston and Louise standing at “the center of the entire galaxy”. “The ground was squishy, the air smelled like armpit, and the crowd roared. Also, the cheerleaders were on fire.” I don’t have many life goals that I’m working on at the moment, but I do hope against hope that someday, somehow, I might write a first page that contains a sentence as fine as that one. Because there is nothing quite as eye-catching as a cheerleader on fire.
I alluded to this earlier but I really am actually very interested in how an author is capable of pairing wackadoodle humor alongside (for lack of a better term) heart. It seems to me a question of tone. If Heider is going to get any reader to invest in the emotional growth of her characters, she has to make them relatable and likable near the start. That’s easy enough for Winston. He’s basically a great big walking open wound of a person anyway. Louise is the tricky one. She’s scientific and sardonic, which is appealing but not necessarily relatable. It takes a little while to discover, but she too wears her heart on her sleeve (albeit a sleeve covered by a lab coat). Still I think it’s the moment when you realize that Louise is completely misinterpreted her brother’s actions that you get a clue to how lonely she is. Winston also misunderstands her, and readers tend to love characters that are misunderstood. It’s an automatic gimme. So it is that having established who these kids are, and taken away their dad, Heider is capable of pulling out the stops on her wackiness, reigning it in periodically to give you another zap to the old emotions.
Yeah. So. Don’t know if I need to mention this again (and when they re-release this book in a newly reissued paperback in 5 years time then I’m sure this review will be out-of-date) but the cover of this book looks like it’s a football/sports book. I mean, there’s some football in here, but it’s not exactly complimentary to the game. Seems a bit of a misleading bit of marketing (and since when have football middle grade novels ever sold a cent, I’d ask you?) so let’s try and imagine what a better book jacket for this book might have looked like. Let’s see… I’d put some flattened tubas and perky sousaphones on there, absolutely. A gigantic, slightly disturbing, definitely frightening fake giant cat head, front and center. Probably an eerie glowing girl in one corner, and maybe a bear thinking, “Snackity Snack Snack Snack Snackity Snack” (the bear’s brief monologue in this book would make an excellent audition piece for some enterprising kid, by the way) in an opposite corner. But while you can sell a book on kooky elements, it’s much harder to convince people of a book’s more heartfelt charms. While Heider is blessed with an ability to plumb plot out of chaos (I mean, her previous book involved a barbershop quartet of disembodied heads, for crying out loud) it’s her talent for pulling a 180 and then drawing heart out of that same chaotic mix that really puts her on the map. In an era of information overload, Mary Winn Heider is the author who will lead us through the pandemonium into the light. Hand this to the kid that wants something smart and funny with a side order of turmoil for spice.
On shelves now.
Source: PDF 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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