Monday, March 08, 2010

Book Review: Runt Farm (Clovis Escapes) by Amanda Lorenzo and Mark Evan Walker

When you go to your mailbox, you expect to find one of three things: bills, things you bought or requested, or garbage. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox and found a package with a book in it that I not only didn't buy, but also didn't request. Who sent it and for what purpose? Such is the story of how I came to read the third book in Amanda Lorenzo's children's series, Runt Farm. Clovis Escapes (the title of the third book) begins with a precarious situation: Clovis has been imprisoned by the NAARF, an evil organization manned by humans and weasels which takes pleasure in imprisoning the cute and fluffy critters that make up the Runt Farm family. When a letter is smuggled out of NAARF, the Runt Farm family swings into action, sending their trusty bunny companion, Beatrice, to mount a rescue. Clovis Escapes is less a novel than a collection of short moral tales for children. Upon further investigation, it seems that the mission of the author is to create a series of fun and fantastical books for kids that portray more of the mixed and unique families that make up the world we live in today (at least from a Western viewpoint, but that's my commentary, no hers). With that goal in mind, I think she succeeded. The Runt Farm family is a mixed bag of characters, all with little individual personalities (albeit, undeveloped ones, since this is both a series and a book for kids), and all of different animal species (which some might consider to be a little arbitrary). One of its flaws, however, is that each "chapter" (or story) has some sort of moral to portray and does so a little. On the one hand, Clovis Escapes' focus on mixed families is a noble mission; on the other, it leaves out a cohesive narrative for a hodgepodge of stories, some of which are related to the initial premise, and some which are not. The focus on morality at the expense of character development, even in a children's book, makes for a novel that is a little too aware of the fact that it is discussing morality. For example, the middle story, which tells about the wrongs of stealing identities (to purchase cheese), is quite point blank about its message, but, in the process, spends far too little time discussing the consequences or the solution in a way that sets right the wrong being committed. I get that it's for kids, but it's not for the age group that reads Dr. Seuss; this novel is for slightly older children (6-10), an audience that isn't all that interested in being preached to. Having said the above, I do think there are some noticeable positives. First, the characters are, despite the flaw in the storytelling, quite cute and enjoyable. Beatrice, the rabbit, and even Clovis, the initial plot point of the novel, are each easy to engage with and fun to read. Second, the illustrations are gorgeous. Mark Evan Walker provides a series of pencil-style drawings throughout the book; their inclusion makes the interior and the cover come to life in the way picture books do. I sometimes wish more books for younger kids had these kinds of images, and hopefully this is the sort of thing that exists throughout the series. Seeing how I haven't read the earlier books in the series, I can't say whether there is an overarching narrative or improvement over previous books. I do think that, despite Clovis Escapes' flaws, it would be a fun and silly book to read to your kids, but that all depends on whether you're interested in morality tales or stories with other goals. One thing is for sure: a focus on diverse families in children's literature is a good idea--hopefully we'll see more of it in the future. The Runt Farm series is available on Amazon or through your local bookseller. If you'd like to learn more about the author, artist, or series, visit their website.

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