11.03.2008

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, 228 pp RL3


I'm sorry, I just didn't like this story. I do, however, like this book. It is gorgeous in presentation, illustration and lay-out. Bagram Ibatoulline is a gifted artist and I hope his work graces the pages of more young adult novels in the future. This is exactly the kind of book that I want to love, but I can't. I put off reading it for over two years because I sensed that Kate DiCamillo borrowed too directly from the wonderful Newbery winner, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. Written in 1929, it is the story of a wooden doll and her various owners. It seemed to have too much of a splash of The Velveteen Rabbit thrown in as well. I also avoided The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane because I sensed that it was a book with a "life lesson". It is. The many glowing reviews call it a story of love, loss and the power to love again. Or love at all, since Edward the china rabbit does not love Abeline, his dedicated child. Sensing this as well as his arrogant nature, Pellegrina, Abeline's grandmother and the person who commissioned the creation of Edward as a gift for her granddaughter, tells Abeline and Edward a bedtime story about an vain princess who loved no one, was turned into a warthog for this flaw then hunted, shot and cooked. This story is supposed to be a lesson to Edward, a lesson that he should learn to love. But, as Elizabeth Ward, pointedly asks in her 2006 review of this book that ran in the Washington Post, "What child needs to be reminded to love? Why, in any case, demonize a child's natural self-involvement, which is all that's "wrong" with Edward?" I cannot agree more.

Over the course of his miraculous journey Edward is taught to love through suffering, loss and pain, pretty intense stuff to repeat over and over again in a child's story about a fragile, beloved china doll. Edward is tossed overboard during an ocean journey then, almost a year later, caught up in a fishing net and taken home by an old man as a gift for his wife, who renames him Susanna. He is later tossed in the dump by their selfish, jealous, rightgeous adult daughter. He is retrieved from the trash heap and travels with a hobo and his dog until he is thrown off a train. He serves as a scarecrow and is hung up, looking like he is crucified on a cross (there is an illustration of this very scene) until a boy steals him for his dying little sister. When Sara Ruth, the little girl dies, Edward wants to die with her, and he almost does. But her brother Bryce takes him along as he flees from his abusive, often absent, drunk father. Edward then has his head smashed into 21 pieces by an angry diner owner when Bryce can't pay his bill. Desperate and in tears, the boy trades Edward to an antique doll repairer and dealer who, cruelly, will not even let the boy hold Edward one last time after he is fixed. Edward spends quite a long time on the shelf of the shop, restored to his former grandeur. Edward is transformed - given new clothes and a new name - by every person who has possessed him. While on the shelf, Edward talks to a doll who tells him to "be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next." And, wonder of wonders, Abeline herself, all grown up and mother to a little girl, walks into the shop and, of course, because Edward has learned to love and be awash in hope, Abeline's little girl is instantly drawn to him and his miraculous journey comes to an end.

I strongly caution you, as parents or adults giving books to children, to read this book or read the whole review in the Washington Post, before handing it over to a child. What message do you want to convey to the child and, more importantly, what message will a child take away from this book? I really do not think that children will read it and get that it is about learning to love and the importance of loving others. Maybe a story about a dog or another living creature, or even another person would convey this message better, but not a story about a vain china doll. I do think that children will come away from it with a fear of the cruelty that adults can exact on those with less power than them. Even Roald Dahl has the decency to punish his rotten adults and selfish children. DiCamillo only punishes Edward, over and over again.


8 comments:

Jill said...

Thanks for posting this review. I haven't read or recommended this book because I've seen mixed reviews and have been skeptical of all of the praise it's received. Have you read The Tale of Despereaux?

Wesley Jeanne said...

That's interesting that you say that because I got this book from the library to read in chapters with my daughter. I did so becomes someone else raved about it on their blog. But I didn't like it for the same reasons you didn't and my daughter grew very bored with it.
Now we are reading Little House in the Big Woods and she likes it better. So do I.

jennybell said...

You know, I never realized what bothered me about this book until I read your review. I started this as a read aloud to my 5 year old, but he didn't want to hear anymore after Edward got thrown overboard (he's a very sensitive child and the "violence" bothered him). I decided to finish it to see if I might want to read it to him when he got older. My answer was no, but I couldn't really tell you why.

Thanks for your review.

Tanya said...

I'm going to out myself... I have never read any books by Kate DiCamillo before Edward Tulane. I started reading Desperaux out loud to my kids when it came out and we were all a little bored and I keep meaning to come back to it but haven't. I am kind of a book snob and tend to avoid anything that is hugely popular and loved by all, like any Oprah book. I sort of felt that way about Kate DiCamillo after she won the Newberry. I know it's wrong to judge a book by it's cover, but there are so many books and so little time that I have to have standards, even if they are arbitrary.

Tanya said...

I'm glad to hear that there are other adults - and kids - who felt the same way about the book. Little House in the Big Woods is a GREAT read out loud. We started reading that series to my daughter when she was four. I had never read it as a kid and really enjoyed it! Glad you and your daughter are too!

hood said...

I agree with your evaluation of the book, and I think that probably for most of the children of parents who read this blog, you're right. I probably wouldn't recommend it for young children, and there are also probably more eloquent books for children who are of an age to handle the overwhelming onslaught of tragedy.

But I also have to say that, for other people's children, this book can be miraculous. I have seen it change lives in the right hands. I'm a middle school teacher of English Language Learners and struggling readers, all of whom are poor, and all of whom have suffered a significant amount of loss and trauma in their lives. This book was chosen for a read-aloud to my 8th grade class because, at the time, many of my students were interested in DiCamillo's books, but found the difficult English vocabulary too frustrating. Edward Tulane was the lowest reading level out of her titles.

I read the book beforehand. It was a little boring to me, and I didn't expect all of my students to like, but I did feel a little flutter of excitement before I read it because I had a feeling that a few of them were going to connect with it. I was wrong: ALL of them connected with the story. They LOVED it, with a passion. The reading level was perfect, and the story really resonated with them. Edward Tulane was the book that got my students to understand many literary concepts they had previously been struggling with, because it touched something deep inside them. My students don't want Roald Dahl fairytales where everyone gets justice in the end, nor would it be helpful to feed them that sort of false hope. They don't want to read "urban" stories about "street life", because they are too obvious and often extremely cliched and try way too hard. Edward Tulane was exactly what they wanted to hear. It is their truth, written in a children's book. Life is hard, life is pain. It is not fair. People will often abuse you and take advantage of you when they can. The obstacles so often seem insurmountable. The guilty ones seldom are the ones held accountable. You will suffer hardship and loss, over and over again. But if you do not let that break you, if you choose love anyway, then there is a tiny light, glimmering at the end of the seemingly interminable tunnel. As long as you have the ability to love, then there is hope for you.

As I type this, I have to admit that I was not compelled to leave this comment because I think the book needs defending; DiCamillo has enjoyed amazing success already. I had to comment because, although I know that it was not your intention to dismiss the book or its readers out of hand, I guess I felt the need to defend my students in some way. And I just hope that you can remember my students and other children like them once in a while. Just because it is not a book 4 your kids, doesn't mean it's not a book 4 mine.

hood said...

I agree with your evaluation of the book, and I think that probably for most of the children of parents who read this blog, you're right. I probably wouldn't recommend it for young children, and there are also probably more eloquent books for children who are of an age to handle the overwhelming onslaught of tragedy.

But I also have to say that, for other people's children, this book can be miraculous. I have seen it change lives in the right hands. I'm a teacher of middle school English Language Learners and struggling readers, all of whom are poor, and all of whom have suffered a significant amount of loss and trauma in their lives. This book was chosen for a read-aloud to my 8th grade class because, at the time, many of my students were interested in DiCamillo's books, but found the difficult English vocabulary too frustrating. Edward Tulane was the lowest reading level out of her titles.

As I read through the book beforehand, I agree that it was a little boring to me. I didn't expect all of my students to like it, but they did. Every single one of them. They LOVED it. The reading level was perfect, and the story really resonated with them. Edward Tulane was the book that got my students to understand many literary concepts they had previously been struggling with, because it touched something deep inside them. My students don't want Roald Dahl fairytales where everyone gets justice, nor would it be helpful to feed them that sort of false hope. They don't want to read "urban" stories about "street life", because they are too obvious and because they are often extremely cliched trying way too hard. Edward Tulane was exactly what they wanted to hear. It was their truth, written in a children's book. Life is hard. Life is painful. It is not fair. People will often abuse you and take advantage of you when they can. The obstacles so often seem insurmountable. The guilty ones seldom are the ones held accountable. You will suffer hardship and loss, over and over again. But if you do not let that break you, if you choose love anyway, then there is a tiny light, glimmering at the end of the seemingly interminable tunnel. As long as you have the ability to love, then there is hope for you.

As I type this, I have to admit that I was not compelled to leave this comment because I think the book needs defending; DiCamillo has enjoyed amazing success already. I had to comment because, although I know that it was not your intention to dismiss the book or its readers out of hand, I guess I felt the need to defend my students in some way. And I just hope that you can remember my students and other children like them once in a while. Just because it is not a book 4 your kids, doesn't mean it's not a book 4 mine.

Tanya said...

Thank you SO MUCH for your wonderful, amazing, moving comment. Your insight and experience is greatly appreciated because, as reviewer of books for kids, I have had to learn that I have an adult perspective, no matter how hard I try not to, and my age and experience affect how I feel about a book. Thus, my opinion of a book ultimately means nothing - it is what the kids think that matters most, and your experience proves that wonderfully.

I guess my main goal is to help guide the adults who put the books in the kids' hands toward titles that will inspire and fulfill them the way EDWARD TULANE did for your students. I especially like writing reviews in a blog format because people like you can comment and give a different perspective on a book. Thank you again for sharing your thoughtful comment and for pointing out that books aren't always about escaping, but are also about connecting and we can never really know what kids will connect with until we give them the chance to. I am glad that you found a book that your students connected with in such a meaningful way, despite your initial impression of it (and mine...)