Finding Orion by John David Anderson
Genre: Middle Grade/Young Adult
Maturity Level: 2
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Rion Kwirk comes from a rather odd family. His mother named him and his sisters after her favorite constellations, and his father makes funky-flavored jelly beans for a living. One sister acts as if she’s always onstage and the other is a walking dictionary. But no one in the family is more odd than Rion’s grandfather, Papa Kwirk. He’s the kind of guy who shows up on his motorcycle only on holidays, handing out crossbows and stuffed squirrels as presents. Rion has always been fascinated by Papa Kwirk, especially since his son—Rion’s father—is the complete opposite. Where Dad is predictable, nerdy, and reassuringly boring, Papa Kwirk is mysterious, dangerous, and cool.
Which is why, when Rion and his family learn of Papa Kwirk’s death and pile into the car to attend his funeral and pay their respects, Rion can’t help but feel that that’s not the end of his story. That there’s so much more to Papa Kwirk to discover.
He doesn’t know how right he is.
There’s not really a tactful way to say this, so I’ll be blunt. I didn’t like this book and I wouldn’t give it to a kid.
I want to start by addressing the intended audience. It seems to be a middle-grade book, both because the main character is in 7th or 8th grade, and because the writing style has that middle grade feel. However, the length, pacing, and themes were more in line with a Young Adult novel. And, you know, an 8th grader wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for YA. So this book seems to occupy the awkward space between MG and YA.
The main thing I didn’t care for about this book at all was the main character, Rion. I guess he’s a pretty accurate portrayal of a thirteen year old boy, because I certainly remember my brother being embarrassed of us all the time and refusing to take pictures and stuff. But I just couldn’t stand this kid. He whined about everything, especially how horrible his family was. The whole time I just wanted to scream at him how lucky he was. Do you know how rare it is for a MG book to have a family with a father and a mother living together and not fighting all the time? And both have a positive relationship with their kids? But because his dad manufactures weird flavors of jelly beans, for some reason that makes him worth disowning. I get that kids might be able to relate to that, being embarrassed of family, and sure, Rion does grow and learn to appreciate his family. But I think this will be completely alienating for like, 80% of kids in the world who would kill for this family.
I also hated how Anderson went overboard on “crazy” vocabulary. Usually I’m not super sensitive to mental-illness stigmatizing words, but it was impossible to not be bothered by it in this book. It is CONSTANT, and it is insensitive. At one point he literally talks about being taken to the loony bin in a straight jacket. I get that the kid thinks his family is weird, but we can do better than that in 2020.
As for representation, there was none. Not even token representation. Zilch.
It also really bothered me that we got through an entire book about what happens after you die without once mentioning God or religion. At some point you have to be avoiding it on purpose. Why? Kids can handle that discussion.
The plot of the book was fun, I guess. It was sort of Walk Two Moons meets National Treasure. The “treasure hunt” for the grandfather’s body was entertaining, and I think kids will like it well enough. But it’s not innovative or compelling enough to be “serious” literature, and it’s not fun enough to be a “just-for-fun” book, so it sort of fell flat.
The idea that a person can be more than just their mistakes or more than just their virtues was well presented. This is an idea that may be new to kids this age. I also liked that it showed the parents as human, people who make mistakes and can grow. But it was really weird that the main character of the story ends up being the Dad, not Rion. Rion, the MG narrator, acts as basically a spectator for the journey his dad goes on to understand who his deceased grandfather was. Could work for YA, but only if you did it really well (which he didn’t), and it was a very bizarre choice for a MG book.
Also, and this doesn’t really matter it just bugs me, the title has nothing to do with the book. But I guess “Finding Papa Kwirk” didn’t have as nice a ring to it.
There were some nice things about this book, but so much of it bothered me. I can’t in good conscience recommend it for kids. Sorry.