Down East 2013 ©
By Kathleen Meil
Like any good Mainer, eleven year-old Tess Brooks believes in hard work, with a heaping side of good luck. She loves her life on Bethsaida Island, but it’s clear that no amount of good luck will keep it from changing.
Cynthia Lord’s Touch Blue (Scholastic Press, New York, New York; Hardcover; 192 pages; $16.99) is a young-adult novel aimed at ages nine through twelve, but it’s a worthwhile read for adults, too. This is Lord’s second novel. Her first, Rules, which won a Newbery Honor for capturing the complicated relationship between a twelve year-old girl and her autistic younger brother, demonstrated Lord’s knack for honestly portraying family struggles and surprising friendships. With Touch Blue she repeats that success and adds a vibrant sense of place to her list of accomplishments.
Tess and her family live on a tiny Maine island, where the shrinking year-round community can no longer sustain its one-room schoolhouse. Losing the school would be the death knell for Bethsaida Island, since every family with children would have to move to the mainland. So the islanders hatch a plan to take in foster children, increasing the school’s enrollment and ensuring their survival.
Though the story is fictional, the situation is all too real for residents of Maine’s fifteen remaining year-round island communities. It’s nothing new, either. In 1964, Frenchboro families really did foster twenty children to bolster the island school’s dismally low enrollment. The plan worked, and sixteen of those children eventually graduated from Frenchboro’s still-open community school.
Today, only thirteen un-bridged Maine islands still support schools, and the story on Bethsaida Island makes a lot of sense to their real students. After most K-8 island schools read Touch Blue last fall, the students chatted with Lord via video conference.
The Maine Department of Education may not be threatening to close small island schools, but given the requirement that they decrease administrative costs while maintaining or increasing student performance, it’s easy to see why fictional Tess is counting on luck.
Every morning, when Tess rises at four to go lobstering with her father, she loads her pocket with luck: “Two pennies from the year I was born. A teeny plastic lobster, so I’ll never come ashore without any. A white quartz heart Amy gave me last Christmas. My new circle of blue sea glass. And finally, a quarter-sized shard of pottery that washed up on our beach.” She carries that luck throughout her day, and Lord threads it through Touch Blue by heading each chapter with a different superstition. The superstitions — from “a redhead on a boat is unlucky” to “touch blue and your wish will come true” — give a hint of how the story will develop. But coming up with twenty-six relevant superstitions is a tall order, and the loosely connected chapter headings feel like a gimmick more often than not.
They do keep luck — and our tendency to rely on it when we don’t have much control — at the forefront of the story. When Tess “touches blue,” she wishes for the plan to save Bethsaida’s school to succeed, but she predictably comes to care about more than maintaining her own island reality. As her foster brother, Aaron, becomes an important, complicated part of her family, she entertains wishes on his behalf: that he will reconnect with his mother, that he will find a home, that he will finally feel like he belongs.
Island life thus becomes a metaphor for family life, with strong connections and big challenges, stubborn trust, and plenty of good and bad luck. From the lobstermen’s banter to the underlying (but ultimately harmless) tension between seasonal and year-round residents, from the color of the ocean to the value of blue sea glass, the authentic details will resonate with anyone who knows and loves Maine. These details are never overdone.
Rather, the simple pleasures of waiting for the ferry, looking back toward the mainland, and gathering for all-island celebrations are seamlessly woven into the story.
Young readers will find much to think about in Touch Blue, and the themes of belonging and not belonging, of struggling with change, and of counting on luck when you don’t have control will make for lively discussions. Adult readers may find Touch Blue a bit predictable, but it’s a quick, entertaining read with authentic characters and a strong sense of place. Perfect for classroom study, parent-child book groups, or readers dealing with foster care or a changing way of life, Touch Blue is a solid addition to any family library.