Emma Donoghue's debut kids novel explores themes of family, acceptance
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
"The Lotterys Plus One" by Emma Donoghue
By Jessica Appleman
Imagine a family. Now picture a family of seven children, four parents, two cats, a dog, a parrot and a rat. Meet the Lotterys.
“The Lotterys Plus One” (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, ages 8-12) is Emma Donoghue’s debut children’s book. In it she has created a cast of believable characters full of heart (and faults).
The Lotterys are not your garden variety nuclear family. They are a cobbled together unit in a kaleidoscope of colors and cultures.
There are biological and adopted children. The same-sex parents come from Scottish, Indian, Mohawk and Jamaican backgrounds.
The prelude of the book describes the Lotterys’ good fortune. After finding an unclaimed winning lottery ticket, the grown-ups quit their jobs. They change their last names to Lottery and buy an old Victorian mansion they dub Camelottery.
Camelottery is hippy heaven. The Lottery children are homeschooled, named after trees and, according to 9-year-old Sumac, “The only routine here is, wake up and decide what you want to learn.”
Even the parents have cute names such as PopCorn and CardaMom.
All is well in Camelottery until the arrival of one grumpy grandfather. After he almost burns down his house, PopCorn and Sumac travel deep into the Yukon to bring him back to Camelottery.
Nicknamed “Grumps” by the Lottery children, Grandfather is an odd addition to the family. A gruff cigarette-smoking woodsman, he is also very traditional. Even after many years, he holds a grudge against his son, PopCorn, for marrying a man.
It’s obvious from the start that Grumps just doesn’t fit in with the Lotterys and their progressive lifestyle. To top it off, he is showing early signs of dementia.
This brings another set of challenges as the family researches the disease and its effects. All the while they are asking themselves if Camelottery is the best place for Grumps.
Grumps is not thrilled about living at Camelottery either. Despite Sumac’s attempts to open the lines of communication, Grumps seems as cold and quiet as a Canadian winter. If the Lotterys are a sunny day, Grumps is certainly the dark cloud.
To ease this transition, the family makes adjustments. For example, Sumac gives up her beloved bedroom so Grumps doesn’t have to climb the stairs.
A house meeting is also called to determine appropriate meal-time etiquette. Rules like, “No eating like dogs,” “No insulting the cooking” and “No facing backward, lying down, or eating upside down” are agreed upon by the Lottery children.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard they try, Grumps remains stony and impassive. His cold temperament seems to be a quiet revolt against the Lotterys and their crunchy lifestyle.
Over time, Grumps begins to open up a little. He even forms a bond with 3-year-old Brian (formerly Briar) despite Grumps’ confusion about Brian’s gender fluidity.
The climax of the book comes when Grumps is playing a game with the kids. Just as it seems like positive relationships are being forged, an accident threatens to destroy them.
Ms. Donoghue wrings plenty of emotion out of this situation. Although Grumps is not a likable character, readers will likely be rooting for him.
Although it tackles some serious subjects, the Lotterys’ story abounds with plenty of humorous antics. In one scene, Brian tries to steal marbles from a toy shop to replace the ones Grumps is (metaphorically) losing.
There is also a lot of clever wordplay. For example, the attic of Camelottery is called the Artic because it doubles as an art studio.
It seems as though the Lotterys have a special name for everything and everyone in their household. This can feel contrived at some points, but it does convey a strong familial bond.
Because of the large cast of characters, readers may also have some trouble keeping track of the Lotterys. Once the story gets rolling, though, the characters’ quirky personalities help to differentiate them.
Consulting the family portrait at the beginning of the book helps keep them straight.
Caroline Hadilaksono’s charming illustrations help to bring the characters to life.
“The Lotterys Plus One” celebrates diversity. Exploring universal themes of family and acceptance, Ms. Donoghue does a lovely job bringing her characters together while acknowledging the real work it takes to build a family and foster relationships.
As Sic, the judicious teen of the house comments, “If your folks get you to 18 in one piece, you owe them something. ... So PopCorn has to be loyal to his dad, and we’re loyal to PopCorn: links in a chain.”
Jessica Appleman is a children’s specialist at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill.
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