What if childhood were not just a time but also a place? Jerry Spinelli vividly imagines this scenario in HOKEY POKEY, a bittersweet, inventive exploration of what happens when it's time to leave Hokey Pokey.
Jerry Spinelli's HOKEY POKEY opens with a dreamlike scene that starts up in the starlit sky and sets the stage for the novel itself: "Mooncow...laughs a great moomoonlaugh and kicks at a lavender star and the star goes shooting across the sky, up the sky and down the sky, a lavender snowfireball down the highnight down...down...down...down...to Hokey Pokey...where it lands, a golden buggle now, a starborn bead, lands and softly pips upon the nose of sleeping Jack and spills a whispered word: it's and then another: time." When Jack wakes up, he feels as though something big has happened, even if he can't articulate what exactly it is.
"Throughout, [Jerry Spinelli] effectively uses inventive language to mirror the creative, whimsical world of children without ever sentimentalizing childhood --- his characters are genuine, down-to-earth kids who just happen to live in a land that most of us never occupied --- or did we?"
Jack doesn't know it yet, but this is the start of his final day in Hokey Pokey, the only place he's ever known. There are no adults in Hokey Pokey, no responsibilities, no chores. There are plenty of battles, however, particularly between Jack and his nemesis, the girl Jubilee, who when the novel opens has stolen his bicycle, Scramjet. Bikes are a big deal in Hokey Pokey --- they roam around the grassland-like atmosphere like herds of wild horses, and Jack is proud to have tamed Scramjet and called it is. When Jubilee takes this wondrous bike, Jack is even more out of sorts.
Jack's the unofficial leader of Hokey Pokey's gang of kids; and his "Amigos" are unsettled, too, when they notice that Jack's tattoo --- the same kind of tattoo all the kids have --- has begun to fade. Jack's started to hear train whistles, too (Hokey Pokey is crisscrossed with
train tracks, but no train ever comes). Most of all, Jack begins to discover that his heart just isn't in the games and good-natured fights and merriment that characterize days in Hokey Pokey: "The world looked exactly the same as always --- the places, the kids --- but this time, there was a slippery sense, like an uncatchable moth, that he himself was no longer part of the picture, was on the outside looking in, that the world he was seeing was no longer his."
Along the way, Spinelli pays homage to J. M. Barrie, Philip Pullman and others who have explored through literature what it means to cross over from the carefree realm of childhood to the unknowable, simultaneously frightening and exciting territory of "tomorrow" that follows it. Throughout, he effectively uses inventive language to mirror the creative, whimsical world of children without ever sentimentalizing childhood --- his characters are genuine, down-to-earth kids who just happen to live in a land that most of us never occupied --- or did we? HOKEY POKEY might be an ideal read-aloud for parents to share with their own children who are approaching the time when they won't want to be read to anymore --- perhaps it will remind both parent and child that these times are precious, and that before too long, that mysterious star will again be whispering "It's time..."
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 7, 2012