Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'The Girl With The Silver Eyes', Willo Davis Roberts' 1980 book about a girl in search of silver-eyed bookworms.
One of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of Fine Lines is the pre-post search for what I can only define as the "right" cover — meaning the one on the book when I read it. (This obsession ranks only slightly below the plot and is hastily abutted by the font. Why does everything have to get re-flowed into Bembo? What's wrong with Caslon?) Now, since as of last week, I've fetched my vast, antique collection of YA works out of storage (did I worry they'd die in a fire? Do you have to ask?) I am happy to say that certain key covers are again WITHIN MY GRASP and will be PROVIDED TO YOU IN DUE TIME.
This is all to say, however, that, as a champion squirreler, I am rarely in the position of having my memory happily jogged by the cover photo. (And seriously, does anyone have the right A Gift of Magic?) BUT NOT SO WITH The Girl With The Silver Eyes, which many of you had mentioned in the comments! This work fell out of my possession in the early 80s, and all I could call up was some dim memory of a factory and an apartment complex with brown balconies overlooking a pool. (There 'tis!) But what reams of crucial essentials had been forgotten! Those calico Clark Kent glasses! That white-ringed tee! That man's groceries tending skyward on their own! How it is fun to make things move, just by thinking about them!
You will recall that Willo Davis Roberts, among the other 987 books she published, also wrote Don't Hurt Laurie — which has a scene of young Laurie, wearing rollers, being beaten with a hairbrush and knocked out against a bathroom sink by her mother. The Girl With the Silver Eyes is not nearly that dark, although it does have Grimmsian intimations about the sorry fate of children at the hands of adults. Luckily, in this case, Roberts has given our heroine, the polyester-orange snappily knife-creased Katie Welker, a weapon against them — not only the aforementioned silver eyes, but their handy corollary: telekinesis, and the ability to know what animals are thinking.
When we first meet Katie, her grandmother Welker has just died, and she's been returned to the custody of her mother, Monica — living in splendor in the apartments you see pictured to your left. Her time with her grandmother as a young girl, however, was by no means sanguine, as Katie's ability to float Social Security checks in from the mailbox to the dining room table without moving rattled the old lady beyond reason:
It had taken her awhile to learn how to be careful about what she moved. She knew the name for the moving, now; she'd read it in a book [more on that later!]. Telekenesis.
As time went on, this peculiar ability of Katie's made more and more problems between them. When Katie learned how to turn off the light from the wall switch after she'd gotten into bed and turn the pages of her book [moooooore on that later!] without touching them...and smooth her hair without using the hairbrush, she made Grandma Welker nervous.
...The same was true of the kids at school. She was good at games, but there was always someone who didn't like the way she played them. She didn't like balls coming at her....That was before she learned how to make the ball veer off to the side. She knew that could spoil a game, but somehow, like other things she did, she couldn't help doing it.
Katie's odd eyes, her controversial page-turning methods, and her champion poker face ("She knew it bothered the adults around her, the way she could keep her small face perfectly expressionless, yet it seemed the safest thing to do, most of the time") go over equally unevenly at the new apartment complex, where she alienates Mr. P, the snarly resident bachelor whom she torments with errant rocks, drives away two loathsome babysitters, and weirds out Monica's boyfriend:
"What kind of kid is this one of yours, Monica? I never saw one like her before."
He didn't lower his voice. He was one of those people who talk about kids as if they weren't there or couldn't hear. Of course, it was probably true that he'd never seen anyone like Katie. She hadn't met anyone like herself either. She wished, quite sincerely, that she would.
Katie's alienation is somewhat mitigated by two new friends: Jackson Jones, the paper-delivery boy whom Mr. P routinely stiffs, and Mrs. M, the batty old neighbor who loans Katie The Scarlet Pimpernel while Katie mind-melds with her cat, Lobo. (Brief aside: Do they still only refer to adults by the first letter of their last name nowadays? All through the 80s, I never knew any adult's *actual* last name!) Still, Katie knows she is different and it pains her — and when she overhears Monica's boyfriend Nathan put forth, in a tell-don't-show exchange too tedious to relate, the theory that Monica's exposure to a drug called Ty-Pan-Oromine while working in a pharmaceutical factory might have spawned Katie's unusual condition and that there may be others like her, she goes hunting for answers:
And if Nathan was right — Katie forgot to eat, engrossed in the idea — that she was the way she was because of the stuff Monica had worked with, what about the babies those other women had had? All about the same time as Katie herself had been born? Was Ty-Pan-Oromine responsible for her silver eyes and this ability to move things by thinking about moving them? And if it was, were those other kids like herself? Somewhere out there in the world, were there more "different" kids, who would be her own kind?
It's unsurprising that TGWTSE is a stealth favorite of readers everywhere, since it is the implicit cri de coeur of those yelled at in English classes for reading one book under the desk because they finished the assigned reading two months ago. Forget talking to cats or moving rocks across the sidewalk to smack irritating neighbors—in TGWTSE, Katie's reading, full stop, is a deeply suspicious activity:
"It's like you were drugged or something, you don't even know what's going around you," Grandma Welker used to say in annoyance about Katie's reading.
Drugged. As in, ON DRUGS, people! And that's not the worst of it:
Grandma didn't value books that much; she'd even burned one, once, when she'd caught Katie reading it after she was supposed to have been asleep. Katie had had difficulty forgiving her for that. She'd had to fish the remains out of her fireplace late at night and carefully lay out the brown pages with the charred edges to find out how it ended.
Does that make your stomach hurt? That actually makes my stomach hurt. But, as in Summer of My German Soldier, you can tell Katie's friends from her enemies by who likes words — Jackson Jones, Mrs. M — and who doesn't. That's why the letter Katie decides to send out to the probable offspring of one of her mother's old coworkers to feel out if they're co-kenetics is so stupendous:
Katie chewed on the end of her pen for a minute, wondering if she should specify anything, and decided not to.
"I like to read, and I like animals," she wrote then. "And I'd sure like to hear from you."
Likes to read, likes animals — are you a mutant too??!!?? But Katie's quest to find out if she's the only one of her kind — a quest in which she is ultimately successful — will be familiar to those who might also primarily use telekinesis to turn pages and push up their glasses without lifting a finger, too. Normal children might use telekinesis to float a ball, you know, INTO the goal. But Katie is un-bubbly, unprepossessing, happy to hang with a septuagenarian and paper boy, and completely unfamiliar with the rites of the slumber party. Left to her own devices, she'll read The Scarlet Pimpernel with one eye and diligently dissect the adults around her with another. She is, to put it briefly, A BIG NERD. Yes, just like you! Floating forks is fine, but this is sweet justice for of us who suffered having a book yanked out of our hands at the dinner table every night. In my next telekinetic life, I will float those back too.
• • • • •
Okay, so this week's Plotfinder was hard, and am actually not sure we got the answer, but let's try. Reader Ena G. seems to think the strawberry/turtle matrix may well be the The Wendy Zephyr Guide to Genuine Magick. Alison, can you confirm to firstname.lastname@example.org?
Moving right along, this week's Plotfinder, which I am convinced — CONVINCED! — is Bradbury, Asimov, LeGuin, or King, though our reader says no — CONVINCED!!! — comes in from Krista:
My best friend and I have been trying to figure this out for years. We read it in our fourth grade class.
There's a family of children and at least one has some sort of special power. Telekinesis, maybe? I think it's the youngest, and I think he/she also has a teddy bear in tow most of the time. The family is (I think) running from some evil being; I remember the book feeling very dark. The limited images I have when I think about it are all at night. Two big clues: a giant ferris wheel and a hotel named Stardust, or something very similar.
Not a lot to go on, but it's all I've got.
Bradbury I say!!!! Maybe Something Wicked This Way Comes! Harrumph. (Ignore me; I'm just on a Bradbury kick since being able to toss off an "All Summer in a Day" for someone else.) As always, float your guesses across the room to email@example.com while keeping your face as expressionless as possible. Also send future requests, Plotfinders and books you read under the desk in English class to same.
Next week: Norma Klein's Love is One of the Choices.
Earlier: Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
•Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
•From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
•A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
•The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
• The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die