Kaline Klattermaster's Tree House by Haven Kimmel

***Sorry about the radio silence around her for the past few days. I had another project I was working on and it kept me from focusing on writing reviews, etc. That and my job, and kids, and wife, and house, and – well, you get the idea.***

Picking up where we left off with last week’s small book appreciation, this week let’s take a look at the young adult version. I get some grief from friends about reading “kids” books, but I find them interesting and entertaining – what can I say? Not only are many of them creative and well written but they are often just plain fun.

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Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House is an interesting example of this genre. It has many of the elements that are prevalent these days. An “adult” author writing young adult fiction; well done illustrations to accompany the text; and a plot that involves social issues.

In this case, the author is Haven Kimmel an author best known for her quirky memoirs but who also writes novels. The illustrations come from Peter Brown who is an author himself. And the social issues are divorce and perhaps developmental handicaps (more on this later).

It is hard to describe a conventional plot for this book. The basic storyline is that the title character, Kaline Klattermaster, is starting third grade and his dad has mysteriously disappeared, his mom is having a hard time concentrating, and he is being bullied at school. To cope with these unsettling developments Kaline creates an imaginary tree house full of two older brothers and hundreds of puppies.

When I first started reading I was slightly annoyed by the style. It drops you right into Kaline’s stream of consciousness. And what is with all the CAPITALIZED words? The rapid fire thoughts and the lack of introduction or explanation were disorientating at first. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten into.

But as I continued on I began to appreciate and enjoy the unique perspective. And I soon found myself a fan of Kaline and of Kimmel’s story. It is a tender and humorous account of one boy’s imaginative coping with the chaos in his life.

More on this below.

Whether you will enjoy this book has a lot to do with expectations. If you want everything spelled out for you and for everything to make sense and fit into a perfect puzzle then you will be disappointed. If you can put those thoughts aside and just enjoy the chaos so to speak I think you will find a endearing character and and entertaining story.

Let’s take a look at some of the reviews to flesh this out a bit. Publishers Weekly takes the most cynical look:

In her children’s fiction debut, bestselling novelist Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy) creates some memorable moments, especially near the end, when Kaline bonds with Mr. Osiris Putnaminski, his eccentric white-haired neighbor, who looks “like a CRAZY SANTA CLAUS” and provides help when it’s needed most. However, the narrative abruptly jumps from Kaline’s fantasies to his down-to-earth concerns about family and school; the shifts are problematic and confusing. Gimmicky devices (like the frequent use of capitalization) are more distracting than effective, and at times Kaline comes off as much younger than his years. His mispronunciation of words (“pangemonia,” “The Declamation of Inkpendence”) and academic struggles contradict the precociousness offered as an explanation for his having started school a year early; if anything he seems to have some sort of disability. However much readers may sympathize with Kaline’s circumstances, they are likely to have trouble relating to the character and understanding what makes him tick.

Kirkus is a little gentler:

Kaline Klattermaster, fresh out of third grade, is one of those kids who TALKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS, has a crazy mother and moves between his imaginary world and the real world with breathtaking frequency. Though the book is written in the third person, this style of using capital letters all the time gives the appearance that Kaline is actually writing the book himself. From within this frantic narrative, the reader has to dig out the bones of the story: Kaline’s obsessively organized father has left the family and everything is out of whack. There is no one to make the dinners, clean the house, mow the lawn or keep everything straight. Kimmel peers into the world of a creative, wildly imaginative boy facing his first real crisis. She cares deeply for the boy, but it will take a special reader to sort through the imaginary friends, side trips into the absurd and detours into the unlikely. Worth the effort, though, for those who persevere will find abundant laughter and sweet resolution.

I will fully admit that I don’t have a background in early education or anything, but I think perhaps PW is being a little harsh here. Do people really analyze kids books in this way. Do you stop in a short book like this and think: I wonder how Kaline’s emotional and intellectual matches up with his grade and age? Do readers really have a hard time understanding what is imaginary and what is real?

I think what is happening here is that the expectations are for some sort of adult psychological realism in a book that isn’t really about that. I think what Kimmel was trying to do was simply give the reader a glimpse of the life of a unique character. To paint a picture of just how crazy life can be and how an active imagination can help you survive.

There is a lot left unsaid, however, in this book. Some have speculated that Kaline has ADHD or Asperger Syndrome. Kimmel seems to hint that Kaline’s dad is obsessive compulsive so that isn’t a reach. But the book doesn’t spell it out. I think that may frustrate adults who like everything explained and tied up neatly.

But kid’s minds don’t work that way. Heck, many adult minds don’t work that way; and life rarely seems to provide this kind of neatness. Kaline is just trying to make sense of and deal with a very complicated and intimidating life. And in order to do that he uses the power of imagination. His tree house becomes a place to escape but also work through his problems. I didn’t find it hard to understand where this stopped and “real life” began.

Despite the serious issues involved, this isn’t some sort of deep commentary on society or childhood. It doesn’t provide answers to these daunting challenges. But it does provide a charming and witty look a what it might be like to see life through the eyes of a precocious child like Kaline even as he deals with things we wish children didn’t have to face.

Maybe I am just a special reader, but I enjoyed “the imaginary friends, side trips into the absurd and detours into the unlikely.” And contrary to PW I didn’t have any “trouble relating to the character and understanding what makes him tick.” But then again, my parents divorced when I was young and I was a pretty hyperactive child with an active imagination.

So if you like your children’s stories neat and tidy Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House is probably not for you. But if you are looking for something different, or for a book that touches on some serious issues without losing its sense of humor, I think you will enjoy this charming story.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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