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Great Ball of Light by Evan Kuhlman, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes, 287 pp, RL 5

Great Ball of Light by Evan Kuhlman with illustrations by Jeremy Holmes, weaves together two seemingly disparate plot threads to create a fantastic story that is also thoughtful and philosophical.  Like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich - something that sounds incompatible, even kind of gross - Kuhlman blends the story of a broken family on the mend with lightning in a jar, specifically a  ball of light that can resurrect any formerly living creature regardless of the state of decay it may be in.

The narrator of Great Ball of Light is the introspective, thoughtful, book lover Fiona North, almost thirteen-year-old twin sister of risk-taker and book hater, Fenton. Fiona and Fenton's family has taken some hits in the last three years. Their mother left her family and their home in Montana to move to New York City and  write about "dopey stuff like lipstick and fashion labels" for a ladies' magazines, a choice which still confounds Fiona. And their Grandpa Wade died in a car crash while driving drunk. Fiona and Fenton didn't know their Grandpa Wade all that well, and their dad and his brother, Uncle Jack, rarely talk about him. But their Grandma Jean seems to still be mourning three years on.

One summer night a cataclysmic storm hits the enormous, long-dead maple tree in the front yard, leaving behind a bouncing ball of light that Fenton captures in a barrel jar and immediately begins experimenting with. Leaves, then apple blossoms that become a strange new fruit Fiona names "mapple," begin to grow on the once dead tree, catching the attention of their reclusive neighbor as the twins bring increasingly bigger creatures back to life with the ball of light. But these creatures don't return to life exactly as they had been. A once-dead beetle with a missing leg has its leg regrown, and an earthworm returns with tiny feet to help it get around better. In one of my favorite scenes, Fenton tosses a slice of salami into the barrel jar hoping to see a pig emerge. Eventually, the twins use the ball of light on their beloved dead dog Scruffy with mixed results. Then the two decide to see if bringing Grandpa Wade back can bring about some positive changes in their family.

This is where Great Ball of Light could have gone in one obvious direction, but instead takes a more interesting turn. Fiona and Fenton's father is anything but pleased to see Wade, and this has nothing to do with his physical appearance, which is decayed, greying and falling apart. Grandpa Wade alcoholism has left Will  and Jack with bitter memories at best. But, while Grandpa Wade has no excuse for his weakness, he does have a long-held secret to reveal that does have an affect on his family. However, this happens just as a nosy neighbor makes a bold move. Shots are fired, the great ball of light is called into action one more time and the family goes on the run.

As the story plays out, Fiona thinks things through and tries to make sense of the miraculous ball of light and the strange ways of adults. As the end of Great Ball of Light draws near, she comes to realize that the ball of light gives dead things a second chance and a choice. The dead maple tree "decided" to become an maple/apple tree when it was brought back to life. Grandpa Wade decided to take "advantage of his last chance and become a better father, husband, and grandpa, and even a bit of a book nut. He could have been a big grump if he wanted to be, but he decided to reach for something better." As she sits in a hotel room somewhere in North Dakota writing the story of the last few amazing weeks of her life, Fiona comes to her "biggest scientific conclusion yet: free will is not lost, even if someone dies and is given a second life. And it's the same kind of free will we have in this life." With this discovery, Fiona's thoughts circle back to where they were at the start of Great Ball of Light. Fiona decides to use her free will write her mother a letter to tell her about everything that has happened but to also questions her mother's use of free will to run away from her husband and children and maybe share some examples of how other people used their free will to become better people.

Great Ball of Light is a curious, thought provoking book that will stay with me for a long time. And it's exactly the kind of book that reminds me of what is magical and wonderful about the art of writing fiction. Evan Kuhlman has taken a familiar story about familial dysfunction and reconciliation and created a surprising, kind of creepy, path to that redemption that makes you take a step back and think about things differently.

More  books by Evan Khulman:

I couldn't find any of Jeremy Holmes interior illustrations from Great Ball of Light, but wanted to share some of his fantastic illustrations:

A page from Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis, fantastic illustrations by Jeremy Holmes.

Source: Review Copy


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