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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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Every bit a delightful contrarian at heart, Ilene Cooper zigs when the world zags. Right when it seems as if the only angels in youth books are of the fallen variety, throwing a winged shoulder to knock vampires out of the way as the next YA swoon-inducers, with Angel in My Pocket, she offers a middle-grade story that investigates a more humanistic side of these benevolent overseers.
Cooper performs (at least) double duty as the Children’s Books editor at Booklist while also overseeing the magazine’s religion coverage, so it isn’t surprising that the two areas often intersect in her writing (30 books and counting, including a brand-new title in her series about Lucy the beagle, Lucy on the Ball). While she wrote about the complex role that religion can take in everyday life in Sam I Am (2004), in Angel in My Pocket, she challenged herself to write about angels in a way that sidesteps religion almost entirely.
“First of all, I had to decide in my own mind whether the characters that come to help the kids are, in fact, angels,” Cooper says. “I believe they are. Yet I wanted to leave all possibilities open for readers. So they can be seen as heavenly intercessors, or interested actors, or anything in between. I also think that we are all put on earth to be each other’s angels. If you are open to it, people do come into your life to help or advise or even just make you laugh. And you can and should do the same for friends and family and even strangers.”
The story gets its structure from a curious little talisman, an angel coin that is passed around by four seventh-grade kids who all need guidance in steering through a choppy patch of growing up. “Although contemporary readers might think the shape of the story is similar to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books,” Cooper says, “actually, the story I had in mind came from a 1940s movie called Tales of Manhattan, starring Rita Hayworth and Henry Fonda, about a formal tailcoat that goes to four different people and changes their lives.”
Though she doesn’t remember where she got it, Cooper does have her own angel coin. “I had the coin for a long time and then almost put it in a charity box. That got me to wondering who the coin might have gone to if I had lost it. And maybe they needed it more than I did.” Sure enough, each time one of the kids winds up with the angel coin, he or she soon meets an unexpectedly supportive person (cleverly named after the archangels as Gabi, Mike, Dr. Raphael, and Uri), who helps one deal with the death of her mother, another embrace a sense of family in a broken home, a third understand bullying, and a fourth come to terms with health and body issues.
While they are each connected by the angel coin, another element that links the kids is their involvement in the school musical Big River. “In plays, there’s a sense of camaraderie that’s not quite like anything else,” Cooper explains. “I think artistic expression, music in particular, is one of the things that unites humanity and can really take us to celestial heights.” Indeed, while the kids get a little push from their angelic helpers, it is their own creative talents that provide the vehicle for positive change. “I wanted readers to see that talent, which is, at various times, empowering, overwhelming, and frightening, is a mixed bag. It all depends on how you use it.”
At its heart, Angel in My Pocket is a book about how a little support can sometimes go a long way during times of personal change and growth. “But if that real-life support isn’t available, and lots of times it isn’t,” observes Cooper, “feeling that you are not alone in the universe, feeling that there’s ‘something else’ watching out for you, can make all the difference.” Though it may not fit as neatly into pockets as a coin, Cooper’s latest is just the book to pass to kids who may need help navigating their own troubled waters.
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