Tuesday, October 8, 2019

SUNSHINE



Author Margaret Simon knows the hearts and minds of young people, as is evidenced in her forthcoming book, Sunshine, to be released by Border Press Books. She demonstrates knowledge of their feelings and behavior in her middle-grade novels about Blessen LaFleur, the heroine of the Blessen series that features a spirited and caring child who lives near the rusty Bayou Teche in southwestern Louisiana. Simon, who has been an elementary school teacher for over thirty years and who now teaches gifted children in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, possesses unusual insight into the lives of those about whom she writes. Her first book about Blessen introduced readers to a heroine who struggles to find joy within the dysfunctional family into which she was born and who proves herself to be the supreme mistress of misadventure. Darrell Bourque, former poet laureate of Louisiana, praised the novel as a “cross between a fairy tale and wisdom literature.”

Simon’s second book, Sunshine, A Blessen Novel, again features Blessen, who has taken on the responsibility of raising a hen she calls Sunshine and, simultaneously, a homeless child named Harmony. Blessen feels she needs to save Harmony from a foster home where she has been placed and neglected. When Sunshine becomes a broody hen, Blessen is forced to get help from her teacher, Ms. Fullilove, to appease the hen, but the care needed for Harmony, an enchanting child Blessen encounters, eclipses her caretaking of this pet. Harmony is a twirling seven-year-old who talks in rhyme most of the time. Of course, the two girls, who call themselves “guardians of nature,” propel themselves into an adventure, running away from home and hiding near an abandoned convent alongside the Bayou Teche, but the unwise decision Blessen makes is resolved in a surprise ending, and young readers will find themselves wanting even more exciting chapters in the life of Blessen…and now, Harmony.

Simon features characters that resonate with authenticity; e.g., Blessen’s brief narration about herself: “All this time, in my life of eleven years, I thought I was white, and come to find out, my father was black as night. My tan skin and big wide nose come from my father’s side, along with my unruly nappy hair; Momma gave me her green eyes and strong will…” Her deceased grandfather: (Pawpee) “Even in his wheelchair, Pawpee was a handyman and master gardener. He saved enough money for Momma to make a down payment on a doublewide with central air. Thanks to my sweet grandpa, I now have my own room and my own bathroom…” And Mae-Mae, her grandmother: “Mae-Mae was the rock who held us all together. She told me then and there that God saved me for a purpose. I was reborn. I was fulfilling my name, Blessen, being a blessing to them all…”

However, Harmony emerges as the primary character in this new story about Blessen, “swirling off the porch, a young black girl [who] swoops like a hawk to my side. She wears a tattered pink dress that’s too short for her long skinny legs. Her skin is as dark as a moonless night, her hair plaited in braids close to her scalp.” Harmony speaks in rhymes that reminded me of the children’s story about the “churkendoose,” a creature who dismays fellow barnyard creatures with his rhyming speech but who becomes a hero because he chases a predatory fox out of the barnyard. Harmony introduces a nonsensical element in this novel; e.g., her wordplay: “You’re pretty as a daisy in Maysy!/Daisy, Mays,/won’t you look at me/twirling like a dancing girl/ready for a partee.”

Simon’s descriptive abilities are evident in each chapter and showcase her powers of observation: “I stop talking and look out across the fields of high sugar cane. Stalks of long, green leaves sway in the wind. We pull behind a cane truck with its yellow triangle ‘Slow’ sign shining on the huge metal basket filled to overflowing with burned stalks…” She tells of the makeshift quarters that Harmony calls home: “The window near the door is open wide, no screen or curtains. I peek inside. There’s no furniture in the room. The hardwood floors are dusty. Two makeshift beds, pallets of blankets and pillows lay in the corner. A small doll sits on one blanket, naked with frazzled plastic blond hair. The doll winks at me with only one eye open…” That vivid last line captures the unkemptness of Harmony’s quarters and underlines Simon’s talents as a writer who is master of concrete detail. 


Children’s literature is Simon’s forte. In Sunshine, as in Blessen, there are no “heavy, cluttery phrases,” as E. B. White says. The language is true and clear, the characters well developed, action consistently moving the readers through suspense with a balance of humor and serious intent, and wisdom is imparted without the writing impinging on didactic. Much of our adult morality in children’s books, White says, has “a stuffiness unworthy of childhood,” but Simon’s characters don’t overpower young readers with lessons in character building. Sunshine is a delightful, spirited work about an unusual family that, despite its dysfunction, manages to convey a message of faith and love, grace and whimsy. It’s Margaret Simon at her best.