Chris Kurtz, The Adventures of a South Pole Pig (Harcourt, 2013)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
Sometimes I wonder if folks are even trying any more. Look at that title. There’s no punch there at all. I’d expect it on a book from a century ago, especially a kids’ book. Actually, scratch that: I read Charles Clark Munn’s Uncle Terry: A Story of the Maine Coast last summer. That title has punch—it gives you a name, which identifies you with the character immediately (even if Uncle Terry is, ultimately, only a minor character in the novel), and then gives you an informative subtitle along the lines of, well, “the adventures of a south pole pig.” Uncle Terry was published in 1900, The Adventures of a South Pole Pig in 2013. We’re going backwards, folks, when it comes to roping readers in.
This is, however, one of those cases where you don’t want to judge the book by its cover too much. The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, despite its mouthful of a title, is a pretty fun middle-grade reader. It gives us the story of Flora (Flora!: The Adventures of a South Pole Pig. PUNCH!), an inquisitive piglet who gets loose one day and happens upon a group of sled dogs training. She gets it into her head that she wants to become a sled pig, and when the opportunity to head out to ship arises, Flora jumps at the chance—but as the head sled dog and a press-ganged ship’s cat keep telling her (without actually saying why she’s part of the expedition), Flora’s place will ultimately not be pulling a sled. Yet she keeps showing her ingenuity enough to have the captain stop the cook from turning her into bacon, but her inability to communicate with humans will have readers guessing right up to the end: will she ever really be a sled pig?
I’m impressed with the way Kurtz handles some pretty tough subjects here; this is much more comparable to seventies middle-grade lit (the obvious comparison here is to Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die, though from the pork’s POV) im many ways than it is to stuff being produced today. On the other hand is the flip side of that argument; if the book begs comparison to books being written forty years ago, when far more was expected of the average middle-grade reader than is today, based on what I’ve read in the genre (hell, most of the YA/high-school-aged books written in the past decade that I’ve read couldn’t hold a candle, substance- or thick-language-wise to middle-grade readers I was assigned in the seventies like Ethan Frome or The Contender), then it comes up rather short. I’m not going to penalize the book much for that; after all, it was released in 2013, not 1973. But the juxtaposition of fluffy writing and heavy subject matter never quite gelled with me during, oh, the middle third of the book or thereabouts. It came much more into focus in the final third (which is about all I can say about that without spoilers). Could certainly be used as a way to dive into deeper topics with the third- or fourth-grade set, but you may want to skim this one yourself first to gauge its reading level. ***