Libby of High Hopes, written and illustrated by Elise Primavera, is a gem of a book. Besides being ideal for readers ready to move up from Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones but not quite ready for the 300+ page books that take up so much shelf space these days, Libby of High Hopes is a thoughtful story about an almost eleven-year-old girl trying to figure things out for herself after her teacher writes on her report card that she needs to "live up to her potential." I've given this book the label "short books - BIG IDEAS," which I usually reserve for books with older characters and more mature themes, but Libby of High Hopes, in spite of its gentle tone, presents some very profound philosophical questions in a way that is palatable and understandable for young readers and great for conversation between parents and kids or book group members. Libby of High Hopes can easily be compared to the fantastic The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall in which a contemporary setting and characters embody timeless ideas and experiences.
"Libby Thump wished for horses," is how Libby of High Hopes begins. A fantastic first line with one of the best character names I've heard in a while. Right out of the gate we know that Libby dreams of something that she doesn't have, and with the last name "Thump" we also know that Libby is probably going to have to overcome a few obstacles to get what she wants. If "Libby Darling" was wishing for horses, I would feel pretty certain that one would trot up to her from across a golden meadow and her wishes would be granted, but not for Libby Thump. Actually, Libby, who is almost eleven and has just finished fourth grade, does get her wish in a kind of magical way, but it also has all sorts of consequences that she does not anticipate. When Libby drags herself away from drawing horses to perform the chore of walking her dog Margaret, she lets her off leash (against orders) and meets Princess, one of the horses at High Hopes Horse Farm. Unfortunately, Margaret spooks Princess and ends up chasing her around the pasture until she finally makes a stunning jump over the fence and heads back to the barn where Sal, the owner of the farm, is none too happy. A quiet, dour man with a limp, Sal refuses to believe Libby when she tells him that Princess jumped the fence. He also refuses to give Libby riding lessons, no matter how she asks. Libby insists that she will return to the farm with her parents the next day and prove that she is serious.
Libby convinces her parents to visit the farm and, to everyone's surprise, her older sister Laurel who seemed like all she was interested in was texting her friends, wants to tag along. When Laurel jumps at the chance to have riding lessons, the Thumps sign her up but can't afford to sign Libby up as well. But, this book isn't called Libby of High Hopes for nothing. Although she gets down, makes some minor bad decisions and does not want to make-up with her former best friend, Libby really does have high hopes and the drive to see them through. When she can't take lessons, Sal lets her ride a fat little pony named Cough Drop in the nearby ring. Libby listens closely to everything he tells Laurel and tries to do it herself. When Libby meets Emily, someone she assumes is a farm hand, she is excited to have Emily teach her how to muck out stalls, clean tack and brush the horses in the hopes of earning lessons that way. Libby does not give up, no matter what gets in her way.
But, by chapter 18 Libby is feeling pretty worn down by all that life has thrown at her. She asks,
What do you do when everything in life seems unfair? When you want to take riding lessons and your stupid sister gets them instead - even though it was your idea in the first place? When you try to Live Up to Your Potential and then get punished for doing it? When your stupid sister gets riding boots and you're forced into going on the swim team even though you stink at swimming? When you are embarrassed by your mother at a Princess Spa Party that you never wanted to go to in the first place? When the only think you want to do you can't because of stupid Just Exactly Like Herself Brittany?
Libby goes on to wonder if her teacher lived up to her potential? Could she have been a "brain surgeon, or a scientist, or even president of the United States? Or had she taken the easy way out by teaching fourth grade? Had Mrs Williams lived up to her potential? For that matter, Libby wondered, had her mother? Her father? Was Laurel? The thing was, how did you know what your potential was?" This passage illustrates what I love most about Primavera's book. Libby tries to make things happen, even when she has to do it on her own. And, when things don't happen the way she wants, she "stews." But she doesn't just stew, she draws on her inner resources and, when it seems like everything else in her life has gone wrong or slipped through her fingers, she picks up her pencil and starts drawing horses again. Although her frustrations over losing out at High Hopes Horse Farm to her sister and Brittany keep her away, Libby's drawing bolsters her sense of self and desire to live up to her potential.
The final chapter in the book is titled, "Blue Skies," and, with some believable turns of events that made me cry just a little, Libby does get her blue skies, a pair of riding boots and a very special princess in the end.
Primavera, author and illustrator of the fantastic holiday picture books, Auntie Claus, Auntie Clause and the Key to Christmas and Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays, provides pitch perfect illustrations for her story that have an old fashioned, Robert McCloskey/Homer Price feel to them. Also, as the above picture from the jacket flap and her illustrations show, Elise must have wished for and drawn lots of horses at some point in her childhood, too.
Source: Review Copy