Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Guttersnipe by Jane Cutler, pictures by Emily Arnold McCully - review

Guttersnipe by Jane Cutler, pictures by Emily Arnold McCully

Ben is a young Jewish boy in Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. Determined to help make ends meet for his fatherless family, he takes a job as a delivery boy for a hatmaker. On his first run, he stops by the workplace of each of his family members: sister Rose selling tickets at the movie theater, brother Max setting pins at the bowling alley, and his mother, singing in Yiddish as she sews as fast as she can.

And then something terrible happens. Hitching a ride on a streetcar, he loses control of the bike and is thrown to the ground, the silk hat linings he was to deliver scattered among the trash of the street and ruined. What I find interesting is this: Ben's failure is not a picture-book failure: a ripped-drawing mishap, an ill-tempered word, a dropped pie. This is a truly spectacular failure, a failure in real-world terms - Ben is going to lose his new job, he may be actually injured, and he will be in trouble if the bicycle is broken. One speculates Mr. Green is going to try to get him to pay for those hat linings, too. This is the kind of screw-up that freezes the blood of even an adult with many years of screw-ups behind her.

But lying there in the street, Ben realizes: "His body would heal. There would be other bicycles, other jobs, and other chances. He was only a boy, just starting out, and he had many things left to learn and to experience."

Perspective. Is it something you can communicate to a kid? Can you read this story now, and then next week, when that kid steps on his brother's meticulously-constructed LEGO masterpiece, can you invoke Ben's perspective on failure? I guess we'll see.

"This was not the end. This was only the beginning."

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