Allison's Book Bag

A Round-up of Novels by Ellen Potter

Posted on: October 29, 2011

What amazes me most about Ellen Potter’s books is how unpredictable they are. Just when I think I have one character or one situation figured out, Potter will reveal a twist. Yet I would never say that her plots are contrived. Ellen Potter also delights me with quirky characters, settings, and situations. Yes, she truly makes all three unusual! Yet with only one exception, I would never say that her unconventional writing feels forced. Last, I’m impressed with how convincingly Potter took on the perspective of an overweight fifth-grade boy. Her other three books are from the viewpoint of precocious preteen girls, making SLOB a unique feat. Perhaps for this reason, SLOB is probably also my favorite. Roahl Dahl and Neil Gaiman fans especially, I encourage you to check out Ellen Potter.

OLIVIA KIDNEY

Cover of "Olivia Kidney"

Cover of Olivia Kidney

Olivia Kidney splashed onto the scene in 2003. Anyone with a bizarre name like Olivia Kidney is bound to have adventures. And so she does, partly because of her dad. Olivia’s dad is an apartment building superintendent. He doesn’t know how to fix things and so is always getting fired. Of course, this means lonely Olivia is always traveling new places and meeting new people. So much so that Potter has already written three books about Olivia. In the first, Olivia’s new home is an apartment building twenty-two stories high, made of maroon and yellow bricks, and located on New York City’s Upper West Side. This in itself might not be so unusual, nor perhaps are the crabby and unfriendly tenants, but wait…. What about the Biffmeyer children outside who are playing freeze tag? The boy who greets Olivia, who is searching for her key, has no shoes and wears dirty socks with a hole in the big toe. He “gave off the faint odor of a barnyard”. What about the batty old woman with bird-skinny legs and no pantyhose? She lives in an apartment that feels like it is floating in thin air, because everything is made of glass—even the floor. From her apartment, you can see two women below playing cards. Olivia can also see an unsupervised toddler playing in the bathroom. When he picks up a blue bottle, full of liquid that Olivia’s dad uses to unclog sinks, Olivia rushes downstairs to prevent him from swallowing poison. In doing so, she meets the boy’s mom who has an appointment with a psychic. As you can tell, adventures also seem to find Olivia. Sometimes all the twists and turns in Olivia Kidney make me feel like I’m in a house of mirrors. At the same time, the bizarre scenarios also exhilarate me the way haunted Halloween houses can. Olivia is a fun character. The apartment complex where they live is weird. And by the time I turn to the last page, pretty much every situation has surprised me in a good way. I can’t wait to read Olivia’s next adventure!

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Cover of "Pish Posh"

Cover of Pish Posh

PISH POSH

In contrast, it took me awhile to warm up to the equally precocious pre-teen featured in Pish Posh. True, Clara Frankofile is different from the norm, but she is also a perfectionist snob. She wears dark glasses and a black dress (of which she owns one-hundred and fifty-seven copies), sits at a little round table in the back of the Pish Posh restaurant, and dines on a tuna-fish sandwich cut into four perfect squares. The latter doesn’t sound too bad, but I don’t like that “she gazed around the room with sharp, assessing eyes”. Nor do I like that Clara felt that her classmates were all astonishingly stupid. Last, I hate that because Clara’s parents won the restaurant, Clara can a patron “has become a Nobody” and then ask them to leave and never return. My favorite scene is the conversation that transpires between Clara and Dr. Piff after she calls him a “Nobody”. While he admits that she has cunning eyes, he also informs her: “And yet, you have failed to notice a most particular and mysterious thing that is happening right under your nose.” This announcement rankles Clara, who in her arrogance thinks she knows everything. To her dismay, she eventually discovers that Dr. Piff is correct. I enjoyed seeing Clara frustrated. Remember though that Clara likes tuna-fish sandwiches. She also likes roller coasters, cotton candy, and beach sand. Moreover, in the quiet of her apartment floor (the family owns two floors of a high-rise apartment), Clara likes to wears overalls and a straw hat. This elegant girl is not as proper and prim as she wants everyone to think. When a girl about her age gets caught stealing on her floor, Clara finds herself craving danger and even covers for the thief who is named Annabel. There is sweetness to the relationship that develops between these two girls, as they make choices about their future and who they really want to be. I also liked the mystery that unfolded, as Clara tries to figure out what secrets are happening under her nose. Last, I was impressed with how Ellen Potter could introduce a somewhat unlikeable character but then turn her into an endearing fun kid.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

SLOB

When I read the first lines of SLOB, I wondered what I was in for: “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are.” Was this going to be another “pity the fat kid” story? Or was it going to be another “here’s how to lose weight” story? I should have known better than to wonder. This is Ellen Potter. SLOB starts out with a simple problem: The cookies which Owen eats for lunch everyday have disappeared. I like Owen’s reason for this daily snack: “No matter how lousy my morning was; those three Oreo cookies remind me that life also has its high points.” I feel the same way about chocolates. After you read about Owen’s gym class, you’ll probably also understand why Owen needs those cookies. On the heels of gym class is a third problem: Owen is trying to build something called Nemesis. About it, Owen says: “I’m not going to tell you what she will do when she’s complete. You don’t know me well enough yet. You probably think you do. Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We’re so obvious…. That doesn’t mean we don’t have other secrets that you can’t see.”And Owen does have a huge one. So does his sister. And even the high school bully. What amazes me about SLOB (and all of Potter’s books) is how organic it is. SLOB goes in one direction and then another. Yet no matter what surprises crop up, when you think about them in hindsight they all make sense. Something else I love about Potter’s books is how easily she weaves in lessons, without ever preaching about them. For example, throughout much of SLOB, Owen struggles with being a coward. At one point, he realizes that he is like a boulder that sits there and lets others do what they want. As such, some of Owen’s failures are through his own weakness. Owen is all of us who have ever run away from a problem. He is also every person who has faced up to problems. For so many reasons, including this one, SLOB is my favorite Ellen Potter book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

THE KNEEBONE BOY

So far, I haven’t cared for at least one book in every author round-up. Inevitably, I have reached this place with Ellen Potter’s books. In The Kneebone Boy, the Hardscrabble children live in a small England town where everyone has avoided them like the plague since their mother disappeared. One reason the villagers avoid them is because rumor has it that one day Otto strangled his mom in a fit of rage. I suspect another reason is because the children aren’t all that friendly. One day the youngest Max invites a girl home. Lucia demands to know who she is. Lucia keeps pressing Brenda with questions until finally Lucia denounces everything Max has said as lies and snorts: “I’m surprised a girl your age would believe such rubbish. I honestly think kids are getting stupider each year.” Yes, Ellen Potter has given readers another snob. The difference here is that while eventually Clara reveals herself as vulnerable as the rest of us, I never really feel this about the Hardscrabble children. In Potter tradition, mysteries are afoot within the first chapter. Did the children’s mom die at the hands of Otto? Did she even die? What exactly happened to their mother? There are other storylines, but none of them possesses the same heart of Potter’s other books. Instead they seem weird for the sake of being odd, such as the unidentified narrator of The Kneebone Boy. Then, if you remember, I compared Olivia Kidney to a house of mirrors because all of its twists and turns. The Kneebone Boy also has twists, but I find them harder to follow and so in the end stopped caring whether they all made sense.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

During one of my first years of gardening, I bought a box of about one hundred flower bulbs. My future husband and I dug trenches along my apartment walls, dumped the bulbs randomly, and then covered them up. The following spring, I had the fun of trying to guess what plant would show up where and in what quantity. Ellen Potter’s books are akin to that experience. Reading them, I never knew what path she would take her characters down or what new characters would show up on the next page. Yet in the end, just like I had a delightfully beautiful garden, her books always felt satisfying and complete.

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