A Review of Mikayla Lowery’s “Zoey’s Zany Life”
The Great 10-Year-Old Brain
When I was a kid, Canada’s Gordon Korman was kind of like a god to me. Here was another kid (ignore that he is a decade older than me) who was publishing novels. As the story goes, Korman wrote his first novel in school in Grade Seven. He was supposed to write a book report, but he didn’t like the books on the list so he instead went and wrote a novel himself and then wrote the subsequent report on his novel. If memory serves me correct, Korman only got a B+ for his efforts. However, Korman got the last laugh by having the book published with a major children’s lit publishing house, thus beginning a multi-decade career as a top young adult and children’s fiction writer. Well, Mr. Korman, it looks like you’ve been bested, at least in terms of age. Mikayla Lowery wrote her first book, Zoey’s Zany Life, when she was just 10 years old. (The author is now 13.) I have to say that the first 10 years leading up to this event have been rather exceptional. Lowery was born in China but spent her first year in an orphanage there. She was adopted by American parents, and has spent eight years as a competitive gymnast winning more than 70 medals. She started writing short stories at nine, and then wrote the novel a year later. How she found the time to do all of those things, I don’t know.
What’s more, where she’s being published is just as exceptional. Charlie’s Port Press is an American small press publisher that prints books solely written or illustrated by children themselves. Some fall on the autism spectrum. That’s just astounding because never would I have believed that there were enough kids out there writing or illustrating books to warrant a publishing house strictly devoted to them. (To wit, I tried to write a novel when I was eight years old in longhand — I still have the manuscript — but quickly abandoned it after two chapters when I realized that there was, you know, work involved.) So both the author and the publisher merit some kind of award for outstanding achievement — and, just so you know, the publisher contacted me for a review, not the other way around because, truthfully, while I’ll touch young adult fiction, anything below that on the age scale is typically not of interest to me and I suppose I sort of lack the qualifications for children’s book reviewing since I typically read adult literary fiction. (Plus, I’ve found children’s fiction to be kind of critic-proof. I rarely get hits on most of the YA I take on, so any that I do read and review are a kind of labour of love for me.)
The next question you probably have for me is, “Is the book any good?” I have to admit with little embarrassment that, yes, it is. It’s the kind of thing that an adult wouldn’t or shouldn’t be mortified to be caught reading, and even I chuckled and groaned at certain bits. While the book perhaps lacks a sort of “adult” subtext (though Lowery does include the word in her book in relation to a movie her main character wants to see, so I would imagine that Lowery understands what subtext is), there’s enough meat on the bone to interest both children and adults alike. Plus, speaking of which, the book is mouth-watering — food gets mentioned a lot, and at the very back at the book are some easy recipes for creating things such as “SPAM on a Stick” and pancakes made with chocolate milk. I look forward to trying some of these food items at some point when I feel the urge for, say, some extra creamy mac and cheese. (What makes it so creamy, though, is a secret between the author and me.)
Your next question is probably going to be, well, what is the book about? Well, it’s about the zany adventures of an 11-year-old chatterbox named Zoey Grace Song who hates school (except art class) and manages to get herself into all sorts of trouble that merits detentions at school and missed suppers at home as punishment. For instance, she blows up a science lab with blue goo after deciding a frog that a biology class was going to dissect was too pale of a colour green. Or she does the typically risqué 11-year-old girl thing of putting on her mother’s make up when she’s expressively told not to. So Zoey’s escapades run from the mundane to the extraordinary. However, the stories should be relatable to just about everyone, and the “subtext” to these stories wind up congealing in a speech that Zoey gives at a Grade Six graduation ceremony at the end of the book that offers readers to be true to who they are, not get too uptight about what other people think about them and own up to any mistakes they make right away, among other things. That this is coming from the mouth of a publishing world prodigy (remember: having your first book published at the age of 35 is considered to be young by publishing world standards) is incredible. I’m 43 years old, and I think even I could stand to hear some of what Lowery is preaching here from time to time.
Since this is a book written by a child, the sentences are short and clipped and there are no literary fireworks. However, the book’s stream of thought rambling will probably remind older readers of some of James Joyce’s work (that I’m comparing a 10-year-old writer to James Joyce feels a bit weird), and because Zoey is usually up to no good, the book reminded me a bit of John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series of books from my youth. However, since this is a book with a female protagonist, some readers will probably reach to Ramona Quimby instead — though I read my share of Beverly Cleary books when I grew up, my memories of those titles are a little foggier than of Fitzgerald’s. In any event, Zoey’s Zany Life lives up to the second word in its title. It’s fun, nothing less, nothing more. You won’t see Lowery winning the Nobel Prize for Literature any time in the near future (that is not meant to crush dreams, though you never know where life may take this young author), but if you’re looking for a breezy, quick read that you don’t have to think too much about, this book fits the bill. It does deserve an adult audience, even if that audience is simply a mom or a dad reading their daughter a chapter of this book at a time to bed. The good news is that this book is far, far from being an embarrassing piece of juvenilia. It’s actually well written considering the age of the author and it’s very funny. The even better news? The next book, Zoey’s Zany Summer, is already slated to be released sometime next year. That’s something we should all look forward to, if Zoey’s Zany Life is any indication.
Mikayla Lowery’s Zoey’s Zany Life will be published by Charlie’s Port Press on November 13, 2018.
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