I think there’s something to say about the state of children’s/middle grade literature recently when you go into a book expecting something much worse to happen than what actually happens. I suppose I could blame it on myself, but I’ve read far too many books (and seen too many shows) where absolute awfulness happens, sometimes only for the sake of drama. So when I was about halfway through Pictures of Hollis Woods, which has Hollis narrating in the present with flashbacks to the past, I was convinced that something terrible had happened, something heartbreakingly sad and crafted to pile on the tears and the angst. That’s what the majority of the books I read in high school and college did, after all.
However, while what happened was sad, it wasn’t
dramatically, unrealistically, angstily so. In fact, I found Pictures of Hollis Woods to be quite a
tender reflection of family and the things that bring them together. Giff
conveys so well all the doubts, hopes, and dreams a girl stuck in foster care
might have, and Hollis’s interactions with people, her desperate wish for a
family, and her determination to make something work no matter what are so well
crafted and described. For once, someone wrote a young girl who, while feisty,
wasn’t bratty, whose hopes and dreams made her actions more believable, and who
was able to graciously accept when she was wrong and make changes accordingly.
Besides the ultimate theme of family, we also have the delightful interaction between Hollis and Josie, which also communicates family, but also brings up a whole host of other things, like caring for the sick and respecting the wishes of those older than you (it’s not revealed how old Josie is, but she’s retired and quite clearly has some form of Alzheimer’s). To be honest, I felt this book dealt with Alzheimer’s in a much better way, and was written much more lyrically and beautifully than Newberry-winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears.
Pictures of Hollis Woods was sad, but not devastatingly so. It was deliciously free of drama and had a wonderful theme of family. I also thought how great it was that Giff revealed the love the Old Man had for Steven despite their arguments. The presence of a critical father in a novel, which also shows the love that exists between him and his family, is a great picture of what families, realistically, are–flawed.