Clare Vanderpool is a gifted writer. She gives her characters names like Shady Howard, The Rattler, and Abilene; she ably evokes both Depression-era and World War I-era Kansas; she crafts excellent sentences; and she moves the story along with events that range from exciting to scary to tender. The question isn't whether Vanderpool can write—it's whether she can write for kids.
Don't get the wrong idea. The content isn't offensive, she doesn't push a liberal political or social agenda (rare these days!), and 12-year-old Abilene Tucker is a genuinely engaging girl. But there's one element that every great children's book has which seems to be missing from Moon Over Manifest: childlikeness.
Clearly, Vanderpool is an adult. We'd expect that, not many kids publish coherent novels, but we expect her in some way to take on the mind and spirit of a child if she's going to write for children. Abilene acts, thinks, and speaks much more like a grown-up than a kid, measuring consequences and analyzing character as someone who's had more experience than most preteens.
Most, not all, of course. But the fact that the majority of 12-year-olds won't be able to relate to the precocious heroine means that the majority of 12-year-olds won't be particularly spellbound by her story, no matter how creative and well-written it is. They won't care about Vanderpool's innate poetry, her use of newspaper clippings and journal entries, or the fact that much of Abilene's knowledge of the past comes from a Hungarian diviner woman.
The story begins with Abilene's father Gideon sending her back to his hometown of Manifest, KS. She only knows about it through his stories, but he's a master storyteller, and she's excited to reach the place he's described. Unfortunately, it isn't the same place he's described, it's just a boring, tired old town in Kansas.
Or is it? Of course it isn't, and Abilene finds this out by delving into Manifest's past via the stories of Miss Sadie about a boy named Jinx, and a box of letters and mementos belonging to the boy. Abilene's Depression era Manifest begins to come to life as she learns more and more about the World War I era Manifest of Jinx and her father.
There's plenty of adventure, the discovery of a spy, a chilling encounter with the KKK, a murder, etc. Vanderpool doesn't indulge in anachronisms: her characters act and think the way people acted and thought back then, and don't suffer from imposed 21st-century ideals. As a debut novel,Moon Over Manifest is really quite good.
But again, is it for children? Some will surely enjoy it, but overall it seems better suited to older readers, teens and even adults. It's not the content that earns this assessment, but the way it's presented. There's too much psychologizing and soul-searching, and not near enough whimsy. Most kids aren't philosophers by age 12, and while they are capable of having deep thoughts, they won't usually be bogged down by them, especially if they don't come from a particularly difficult background.
Moon Over Manifest is far from boring. The story is intriguing, and many elementary grade readers will be drawn to it for no other reason. Yet many simply won't care. There's such a patina of seriousness and heaviness that kids will feel like they're reading an adult novel, not one that captures or celebrates their unique age and its unique wonders. Still, this is much better than most books currently written for young people, and we recommend it for older middle school and teen readers.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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