Reviewed February 25, 2013.
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), 2013. 285 pages.
Hokey Pokey is not quite like any other children’s novel I’ve ever read, and therefore a little hard to explain. Of course, I don’t want to explain too much, because part of the fun is figuring out what’s going on.
It’s true: Kids live in their own little world, don’t they?
The book opens with the universe whispering to Jack: It’s time!
Here’s how he wakes up:
Something is wrong.
He knows it before he opens his eyes.
His bike is gone!
What more could he have done? He parked it so close that when he shut his eyes to sleep, he could smell the rubber of the tires, the grease on the chain.
And still she took it. His beloved Scramjet. He won’t say her name. He never says her name, only her kind, sneers it to the morning star: “Girl.”
Everything goes wrong from there on out. Jack’s revered in Hokey Pokey. He caught Scramjet himself from the herd of bikes running wild on the Great Plains. It is wrong that a girl should be riding the famed Scramjet and paint it yellow with pink sparkles. And then other things go wrong as well.
The strength of this book is the description of the world of childhood, complete with the logic of childhood. There are places to play like Thousand Puddles, and the Playground. There’s a pile of Dirty Socks that stinks badly enough to make anyone gag. There’s Cartoons where kids can watch all day long. There’s Snuggle Stop, where Little Kids can get hugs (and Big Kids sometimes go secretly).
I like the Four Nevers that get told to any Newbies:
Never pass a puddle without stomping in it. Never go to sleep until the last minute. Never go near Forbidden Hut. Never kiss a girl.
All in all, it feels like a pretty decent description of the world of childhood – except, the world of childhood from a boy’s perspective. Sure, there’s a Doll Farm and girls doing girly things, but there weren’t any little girls mooning over horse books or playing house with their dolls, so I didn’t see my own childhood in those pages. Though that may be appropriate, since the protagonist is a boy.
As an adult reading it, I could tell pretty quickly where it was going, and I felt like it took a long time to get there. With nice touches along the way, mind you. I wonder how it will come across to an actual kid. Will they relate to it, or is all the charm in nostalgia? Will they find it insightful? Will they wish they really did have a world like that? Or will it seem like an adult's idea of a kid's world?
There were a lot of creative and imaginative details. I would have appreciated the herds of wild bikes more if I hadn’t recently read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, which had the same thing. But there were other great details like the Hokey Pokey Man who gives frozen treats of every possible flavor, or the monsters that appear over kids when they sleep, or the half a walnut shell in the right front pocket of every pair of pants. When a kid holds it to his ear at bedtime, he hears The Story.
This book is fun and imaginative and nostalgic. I hope I’ll hear from some kids who’ve read it, because I’m curious what they will think of it.