Literary Celebrity Guest Review: Hokey Pokey, written by Jerry Spinelli, reviewed by Jonathan Auxier, 304 pp, RL 4

Jonathan Auxier

Tanya asked if there were any recent book that I wanted to talk about, and I instantly responded with Hokey Pokey. I am from a generation who was raised on Jerry Spinelli; Maniac Magee came out when I was in fourth grade, and it was the first assigned reading that I actually enjoyed. Like Holes or Wrinkle in Time, Maniac Magee is one of those special Newbery books whose influence endures. It is well-written, yes, but almost as importantly, it is a story that resonates with readers from all walks of life. I have recommended the book countless times to countless children, and every one of them has loved it. Spinelli, of course, is no one-hit-wonder, and has released a number of beloved books for children and young adults. None of those books, however, could quite touch the magic of Maniac Magee . . . that is, until Hokey Pokey. 
Allow me to steal a summary from super-librarian Betsy Bird
It should be just another day in Hokey Pokey. For Jack, it’s his last. Somewhere, deep inside of himself, he knows it. And not just because his beloved bike, Scramjet, is now in the possession of his number one most hated rival, the loathed girl Jubilee. No, it’s more than that. When his friends start noticing that the tattoo on his belly, the one that every kid in Hokey Pokey wears, is starting to fade away, he knows his time is up. Welcome to Hokey Pokey, a wonderland of a place where a kid gets to be a kid for as long as they like, every day. It’s the only place Jack has ever known, and now he has got to go. 

The plot only hints at the layers and thematic complexity of this book. Hokey Pokey demands a lot from readers. The language, though sparse, must be read slowly and with care, as one would read poetry. It is the only book I can think of that forces readers to refer back to the cryptic front-matter repeatedly—each time with a new understanding of what the words mean. Only at the very end of the book does the epigraph become completely clear. Spinelli blends the universal and the specific in a remarkable way. Every strange image feels like it’s been plucked from the collective subconscious of children’s literature, creating an almost dream-like feeling for the reader: I’ve been here before, but have I? This mixture of suspense and familiarity is essential to the plot of all good tragedies. As Jack proceeds through his story, we become increasingly aware of what is about to happen to him—and our heart breaks in anticipation. 
It has been observed that I am somewhat obsessive about JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. More than once, people have asked me what I think about Pan adaptations and sequels written by contemporary writers. My usual response is that I think those writers could better use their time creating their own characters to discuss similar themes. Spinelli has done just that. The fugitive shadow of Peter Pan skitters all throughout Hokey Pokey without ever once needing to be mentioned. To every person hoping to write an “updated” version of Oz, or Wonderland, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I would direct them to this book. 
Hokey Pokey has proven to be fairly decisive. Many find the language impenetrable. Others find problems in depictions of gender and 1950’s nostalgia. I taught the book in an MFA fiction workshop, and the class was evenly divided between haters and lovers. People who dislike this book are not wrong in their opinion, but they would be wrong to dismiss it. 
We are on the eve of kidlit awards season. Judges across the country are reading and re-reading wonderful books, agonizing over which one is “best.” These prizes don’t just boost sales and make a few headlines—they help mold the children’s literature canon for future generations of readers. All I can say is that if Hokey Pokey enters the canon, we will have expanded our understanding of what children’s literature can do. How many other books can you say that about? 

Cover art for the paperback of Hokey Pokey
coming 4/22/14

About Jonathan Auxier

A native of Canada, Jonathan Auxier graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with an MFA in dramatic writing. After spending time in Los Angeles writing screenplays, he and his wife, and their new daughter, are back in Pennsylvania where Jonathan is teaching Creative Writing for Children in the MFA program at Chatham University. For a more thorough biography of Auxier, click here. Jonathan's first novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, cover art by Gilbert Ford, received rave reviews. His second novel for young readers, The Night Gardener, will be available on May 20, 2014. 

utterly beguiling tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery. One fateful afternoon, he steals a box from a mysterious traveling haberdasher—a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. When he tries the first pair, he is instantly transported to a hidden island where he is presented with a special quest: to travel to the dangerous Vanished Kingdom and rescue a people in need. Along with his loyal sidekick—a knight who has been turned into an unfortunate combination of horse and cat—and the magic eyes, he embarks on an unforgettable, swashbuckling adventure to discover his true destiny.

You can read my review here. You can read the first chapter by clicking here as well as enjoy one of the 31 pen-and-ink illustrations done by the author himself. While your there, don't miss the very cool Thieves' Dictionary.

The Night Gardener, with superbly creepy over art by Patrick Arrasmith, coming May 20, 2014!

This much-anticipated follow-up to Jonathan Auxier’s exceptional debut, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a Victorian ghost story with shades of Washington Irving and Henry James. More than just a spooky tale, it’s also a moral fable about human greed and the power of storytelling.

The Night Gardener follows two abandoned Irish siblings who travel to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house. But the house and its family are not quite what they seem. Soon the children are confronted by a mysterious spectre and an ancient curse that threatens their very lives. With Auxier’s exquisite command of language, The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making.

Don't miss Jonathan's blog, The Scop, where you can enjoy more of his illustrations as well as his insightful, in depth thoughts on classic children's literature, the books he is currently teaching as well as the sources of his passion for reading, children's literature and more!

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