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Kaleidoscope Eyes: Jen Bryant

Book: Kaleidoscope Eyes
Author: Jen Bryant
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10-14

Bk_kaleid_120Jen Bryant's Kaleidoscope Eyes is a verse novel about a broken family and a hunt for buried treasure, set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. That's a lot to pack into a middle grade novel (which I personally think is a better fit for middle school). But Bryant does an excellent job.

In 1968, Lyza lives with her father and her Janis Joplin-obsessed 19-year-old sister in a small town near the Jersey Shore. Lyza's mother left the family several earlier, leaving no forwarding address, and her father, a professor, works all the time. Lyza plans on spending a quiet summer before starting high school with her two best friends, Malcolm and Carolann. Their plans change, however, when Lyza's grandfather dies, leaving behind three maps, a mysterious key, and a letter asking Lyza to complete a project for him. Before they know it, the three friends find themselves on the trail of pirate treasure.

The thing that first struck me about Kaleidoscope Eyes was how strongly everything about the book feels like the late 60's. I mean, I was only a toddler then, so I can't really say. But as far as I can tell Bryant and her publisher spared no detail in channeling the summer of 1968. There are quotes from sixties music at the start of each section of the book. There are numerous music references within the text (the title is itself a musical reference, of course). The very fonts of the chapter titles have a psychedelic sixties look. And the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, as experienced by ordinary young teens in the US, permeate the book, which is written like a diary in verse.

Lyza's friend Malcolm is black. She explains matter-of-factly why they are friends out of school, but can't spend time together in school. Like this:

"We sure didn't make the rules
about who can be friends with whom,
and we don't like the rules the way they are...
but we are also not fools.

There are three hundred other kids in our school
and as far as I can tell, not one of them has
a best friend
who's a different color." (Page 12, paperback edition)

Malcolm also can't eat at the local diner, because the owner is bigoted. When Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, Malcolm's mom "cried for two days straight". There are rumors that black soldiers are sent to the most dangerous places in Vietnam. And so on.

Lyza notes various Vietnam War protests, and attends the funerals of three local boys killed in the war. There's a scene in which she and another character clear weeds around the boys' graves. When someone she knows is drafted, she is speechless with grief. Letters from Vietnam are included after the boy goes overseas, and fear for his fate shadows the rest of the book.

But I think that what really makes Kaleidoscope Eyes feel like it was written in the sixties is that all of these things are facts of life. Lyza isn't casting the kind of moral judgments that you sometimes see in historical fiction, where today's retrospective sensibilities color her views. She likes people who are nice to Malcolm better than people aren't, and she's sad and baffled about the war and what it's doing to kids she knows. But there's an immediacy to her reactions that feels real, and is, I think, hard to pull off. 

Bryant's writing itself is lovely. I expected Kaleidoscope Eyes to be a quick read, because there's a lot of white space. But I found myself reading slowly, listening inside my head to how the words would sound if said aloud. Bryant uses a number of different styles of verse, conveying pace and mood by the length of the lines and visual density of the text. She uses white space to add additional levels of meaning. Like this:

"I turn the cylinders
   around and
      around and
         around until I find a brand-new pattern,

in hopes that my brain
might catch on and do the same.
I put the kaleidoscope
aside,                     look at the maps again. (Page 54, paperback)

The text is a visual kaleidoscope, with words coming together in different patterns on every page.

So, the writing in Kaleidoscope Eyes is beautiful, the plot is entertaining, and the backdrop is fully textured and authentic. I quite enjoyed Kaleidoscope Eyes, and can imagine re-reading it in the future. My only question with this book is that I'm not sure exactly who the audience is. Amazon says that it's middle grade, and there's nothing objectionable about it, but the characters are about to start high school, and the war theme is fairly adult, so I would put it more as a middle school book. It's also a verse novel about a hunt for pirate loot, which is not your typical combination. So, librarians, if you know any kids who like mysteries and quests, and won't be scared off by the idea a novel in verse, hand them this book. Tell them it's about pirates in New Jersey. And for anyone else looking for a window into 19668 America, Kaleidoscope Eyes is the book for you.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: May 12, 2009
Source of Book: Copy from the author

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.