One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

For a dog owner, it’s always a fascinating exercise to see what your pet notices. You pick up the house keys and she’s at the door; simply raise your eyebrows and her ears are pricked up in anticipation. A dog’s job is above all observing her humans, and we’re amazed by what she notices.

Yet nothing tops our own species as the reigning champions of observation. When we’re paying attention, we see everything: the slight tightness in a boss’s face, or the averted eyes of a suspicious stranger. The key is the paying attention part. In psychology experiments, a subject might be “primed” for a test by viewing significant words or images. In life, our past experiences teach us what to look out for.

One for the Murphys is a story about seeing. Twelve-year-old Carley Connors keeps much to herself, but the reader sees she’s a pro at observation, especially of her foster family:

“Michael Eric comes in with his hand tucked into his armpit. His mother drops to the floor like someone has kicked her behind the knees, but she lands gently, holding out her arms, and he melts into them.”

From smiling photos, neatly arranged pantry supplies, and especially the warm gestures and touches exchanged between the Murphys, Carley sees she doesn’t belong. She sees other things, too: moments of tension, worry, and anger. To another’s eyes, these might be normal moments of stress for a family, especially a new foster family. But to Carley, every frown is evidence that she is unwanted. Every hand reaching out is a potential slap, and she reflexively flinches. Although she has a keen eye for observation, her perception is skewed.

Through fragments of memory, the reader starts to see why: the last thing Carley saw before she woke up in the hospital was her stepfather raising his fists to beat her, and her mother holding her down. Carley, believing strength and emotion are mutually exclusive, doesn’t share this information readily with the people she encounters. Without all the facts, these other characters make their own judgments: a police officer sees her as an instigator; a classmate, seeing only the new clothes Mrs. Murphy has purchase for Carley, thinks she’s a mindless clone of any other kid. But the reader is granted the most accurate view. In seeing each person’s mistakes in perception, including Carley’s, we start to wonder about the people we see and the judgments we make. There’s almost always more to the story – in One for the Murphys and in life – and it isn’t always something that we great observers can clearly see.

Brave Irene

brave-ireneBrave Irene

by William Steig

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986

A childhood favorite of mine, this book is about one girl’s determination to help her mother in the face of trouble. When Irene’s mother, a seamstress, falls sick, there is no one to take a beautiful gown to the duchess on the day of her big ball. Irene takes on the job, and bounds through whirling snow and bitter wind that taunts Irene, telling her to GO HO—WO—WOME!” After the package flies out of Irene’s arms and the dress blows away, Irene becomes buried in snow and almost gives up. But remembering her mother’s face, she leaps out of the snow and races down the hill to the duchess’s house. She sees the beautiful dress her mom made next to a tree, and is greeted by a glowing fire, a warm meal, and cheerful faces when she knocks on the duchess’s door. William Steig’s classic illustration style—with atmospheric color, bold outlining, and sketch-like detail—shines in this heartwarming story. It is notable that the text is longer than the average picture book, and so I would only use this with a well-behaved preschool storytime group. It is also significant that the story deals with some heavy, questionable circumstances. As I child, I never wondered why Irene’s mother let her go out in the freezing snowstorm, but now I do. I never worried about the implications of young Irene staying overnight in a stranger’s home, but now I do. When Irene gets buried in the snow, she asks herself, “Why not freeze to death, and let all these troubles end?” Of course, the beauty is that she finds hope in the image of her mother’s face and keeps going, but it is definitely intense material for storytime. Yet, the theme of this picture book is hope amidst chaos, and determination in a world that wants you to give up. How can we not share a book with such poignant themes with children?