Whenever I’m between book writing projects or thinking my way through a new idea, I read. Actually, I read all the time, so that’s no surprise. Writers are always readers–the two activities are really part of the same process. Can you imagine a cook who doesn’t enjoy trying different types of foods? A painter who doesn’t visit galleries and study the works of others? An architect who designed buildings without ever studying how the different parts all fit together in other buildings? That’s a writer without reading.
Anyway, I just finished reading Just Call Me Joe, by Frieda Wishinsky. It’s an Orca Young Reader, which means the intended readership is readers ages 7 to 10, who are in grades 2 to 5. The font is larger than average, and it only has 100 pages, so it’s a nice fast story for a good reader.
I was drawn to this novel for a few reasons. As a writer, I like to examine many different publisher lines, so that I’ll have some ideas about where to submit my books once they’re written. Just Call Me Joe is about immigration–the same general subject area as my novel, Adeline’s Dream. So, of course I was interested to see how another author handled the same topic.
Adeline’s Dream is a long novel for middle grades (45,000 words), while Just Call Me Joe is part of a series of much shorter books (13,000 to 18,000 words) for younger readers. I’m always curious to see the differences in plotting and characterization between two such different lengths.
Just Call Me Joe begins with the ominous chapter title: “Sometimes They Send You Back.” Wishinsky does a good job of filling in the details of who Joseph is, and why the ship he’s on has just passed the Statue of Liberty in the first two tense chapters. It’s easy to identify with him as he remembers the Russian soldiers he and his sister have escaped from–and shares his dream to become an American.
By chapter four the pacing in Just Call Me Joe makes a change. Instead of memories and fully fleshed scenes, the story moves to dialogue that serves as a useful tool for propelling Joseph’s life ahead in the new country where he’s been plunked in first grade, far below boys his own age, so he can learn to speak English.
It isn’t easy living at Aunt Sophie’s in New York in 1909. Joseph must share a room with a renter, Mr. Plucknik, who tosses stinky socks and shirts onto Joe’s cot, and snores all night. Cabbage soup is the food of the day. His sister, Anna, hates her job at the factory, where she works many long hard hours for very little pay.
Street kids, Sam, Lou, and Al, soon befriend Joseph and introduce him to a life that he knows is wrong. They don’t work, they steal, and yet, Joe is drawn into their world by the friendship they offer. This conflict, which starts slowly in the fourth chapter and reaches a resolution in the second last chapter, provides plot elements for Joe’s character growth throughout the novel.
This was one of the areas I was most interested in as a writer–with a short word count, what types of character growth and change does an author incorporate into a satisfying historical story? Here, the growth was integral to the plot, with a swirling vortex that drew Joe down, keeping the reader wondering if he would really end up doing what Sam urged him to do.
Like all satisfying stories, the climax of Just Call Me Joe comes at a point where everything seems lost, until the main character takes a stand against the elements that are pulling him down. Sam and Al take off to earn some “real” money with crime, and Joe gets a promotion to a higher grade at school, showing the reader that his hard work has paid off. There’s hope that Joe will get a part-time job and that work will improve for Anna, as she has also taken a stand against the oppressive employer at a union meeting.
The novel, while about immigration, has elements that all children will identify with through Joe’s internal struggle to keep doing what he knows is right, when he’s offered what seem to be such easy alternatives. While the ending may be brighter than that experienced by many immigrants, it feels realistic with the plot elements we’re given.
All in all, Just Call Me Joe is an interesting novel for young readers experiencing historical fiction for the first time.