Kaleidoscope Eyes by Jen Bryant: Book Review
By Jen Bryant
Middle Grade (5th-8th)
Novel Written in Verse
I wanted to love this book more than I did, and so I’ll tell you what I think young readers will love about it, and then what Ms. Persnickety (me) didn’t like so much.
It’s the summer of 1968. The Vietnam war is raging, and Lyza’s mother has deserted the family. Both of these things hover in the background of the story, which is the way tough issues tend to be handled in MG. The foreground is on a pirate treasure hunt, which begins after Lyza’s beloved grandfather dies and leaves her a treasure map. He’d been a grand adventurer, and she’s the only family member who loves adventure as he had. Armed with the map, and accompanied by her friends, Malcolm and Carolann, Lyza sets off to find the lost treasure of pirate Captain Kidd, hidden in their own state of New Jersey. Who doesn’t like a mystery? And what kid’s eyes don’t light up at the thought of finding buried treasure? Young readers will love those elements. Probably even the implausible conclusion. Given the audience this book was intended for, this book does just fine.
Here’s what disappointed Ms. Persnickety: I thirst for books set in the late 60’s. I came of age then, and well remember the times. I spent a year writing a manuscript (unpublished) set in 1968-69. So when I cracked open Kaleidoscope Eyes, I expected to be taken on a grand journey back in time … to breathe the air I breathed … to see the sights, hear the sounds … but I didn’t. Ms. Bryant got most of her history right: the death of Martin Luther King; that young men were being sent to Vietnam, or sneaking off to Canada to evade the draft. But the details just didn’t resonate deeply with me, and I’m not sure why. Maybe the free verse poetry couldn’t come close to evoking the sights, the sounds, or the smells of the times. It couldn’t come close to catching the pulsating energy of the times, or the all-consuming anger. For that, perhaps chunky paragraphs would’ve worked better than short lines of verse, which give the illusion of slightness, airiness.
Then there is at least one factual error. Lyza talks about her sister being a Hippie—in 1966. Hippies didn’t come on the scene any sooner than the fall of 1968, early 1969. Our society underwent a paradigm shift at that time. One day, we were the plastic, space-aged people of the early 60’s, jello eaters, Kool-aid drinkers, a people destined for the moon. The next day, we were about protesting on college campuses, dropping acid, and rioting in the streets.
Even apart from the 60’s backdrop and the Vietnam War, I had issues with Kaleidoscope Eyes. When I read in the first few pages that Lyza’s mother had deserted the family, I expected the story to be about Lyza coming to terms with that, like so many other MG books where a parent leaves or dies. In the end, she realizes that finding the treasure won’t bring her mother back, nor the young men who’ve died in the war, but more of her personal ponderings about those issues throughout the book would’ve made it feel less like reading a Nancy Drew mystery, and more like the story it could’ve been, to me.
But as I said at the beginning, for the intended audience, this book works just fine.