Monday, May 2, 2011

Scumble by Ingrid Law

"We had to wait until my birthday came and went.  We had to see if anything exploded, caught fire, or flooded before committing to a long-haul trip across four states in the minivan.  In my family, thirteenth birthdays were like time bombs, with no burning fuse or beeping countdown to tell you when to plug your ears, duck, brace yourself, or turn tail and get the hay bales out of Dodge." 

Scumble is a companion to the immensely popular Newbery Honor book Savvy, about a special family whose members all develop a magical talent on their 13th birthdays.   These talents, or savvys, as the families call them, are kept dead secret from the outside world and range precariously from the sublime to the ridiculous.

"My mom's side of the family had always been more than a little different.  I doubted there were many people with a time-hopping great-aunt, a grandpa who shaped mountains and valleys out of land pancake-flat, and a mix of cousins who ranged from electric to mind-reading to done-gone vanished--poof! I'd even had a great-uncle who could spit hailstones like watermelon seeds, or gargle water into vapor and blow it out his ears.  When Great-uncle Ferris turned thirteen, his savvy had stunned him with a sudden, sunny-colored snowstorm inside the family outhouse, toppling the small shack like an overburdened ice chest that rolled down the hill with him still inside it."  

13-year-old Ledger's brand-new savvy seems more like a curse than a talent.  Instead of the phenomenal running speed he had hoped for, suddenly machinery falls apart whenever he's around.  His frazzled parents leave him for the summer at his Uncle Autry's ranch, where they hope he will learn to scumble, or control his savvy.  ("Scumble" is a term from the visual arts, meaning to blend colours together or mute bright colours with a thin overlay of semi-opaque pigment).  Ledger's summer is certainly eventful--for one thing, he catches the prying eye of thirteen-year old Sarah Jane Cabot, ace reporter for the Sundance Scuttlebut, who immediately senses a mystery surrounding Ledger and his family.   And for another, his uncle may be about to lose the ranch.   But most importantly, he discovers something unexpected about himself--he is, in fact, an artist. 

There are some pretty good reasons that Savvy and Scumble have been so popular, I think.  Law is so inventive, and the savvy families she writes about are a lively and intriguing bunch.   Her writing style is rooted in the American tall-tale tradition and she really makes it work.  Scumble reminds me of those great Grandma Dowdel stories by Richard Peck.  Everything that happens is a little unexpected, a little unbelievable, but in the end, happily, it all fits together.    

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