Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Kid Settles In: Piper Reed, The Great Gypsy by Kimberly Holt

Before we moved to Pensacola, we'd lived in California, Texas, Guam, Mississippi, New Hampshire. Just when a place started to feel like home, we had to leave again.

That's the way the Navy life was. Someone was always coming and someone was always going.

For Piper Reed, whose move from San Diego to Pensacola, Florida, was chronicled in Piper Reed: Navy Brat, (reviewed here June 25, 2008) this time the "someone going" is her dad, the Chief, who leaves on a six-month cruise just as she is settling down in their new place. Piper, the middle girl in the family, can't help but feel a bit out of sorts as she watches her dad sail out of their life until next September.

When I wanted to get back at (big sister) Tori, I mentioned her chubby body.

"You're mean, Piper Reed," Tori complained.

She was right. Since Chief left I had said something mean every day.

But despite herself, Piper's upbeat nature reasserts itself as she throws her energy into making friends with their new neighbors, Abe, Yolanda, and little Brady, and into training her poodle Bruna for the Pet Show she is planning for her Gypsy Club members. She is sure she and Bruna will win, but first she has to teach her new dog at least one trick, and Bruna is not cooperating.

While Piper practices teaching Bruna to fetch and little sister Sam teaches her goldfish Peaches II her trick, the family shares some good times. Mom decides that they will have a "different" Christmas while Chief is away, renting a beach house that looks like a flying saucer and decorating a sad-looking "Charlie Brown" tree, and visiting her mother's college art teacher in New Orleans, where Tori renews her acquaintance with beignets while Piper learns that her mom was once an avant garde painter who called herself Coco Kappel.

April brings a major family brouhaha when Mom slips and falls on Tori's secret journal, mysteriously left open on the stairs. Tori paints herself grandly as the long-suffering savior of the situation in her letter to her dad, but Sam is less verbose and gets right to the indictment:

Dear Daddy,

Mommy broke her leg.


P.S.: It was Piper's fault.

Under a cloud of suspicion and her dad's warning that "I'll have to get to the bottom of this when I return home," Piper nevertheless forges on with her summer plans, training Bruna to do three tricks with the indispensable help of two-year-old Brady, and sculpting an amazing likeness of Tori's nose with its first pimple in art class. When the long-awaited July 4 Pet Show finally arrives, Bruna performs two out of three of her tricks flawlessly, even without Brady's help. Although TippyToes the dancing guinea pig waltzes off with the prize, Piper is proud that her first Pet Show production is a rousing success. Finally, to her great relief, Sam confesses to leaving Tori's journal open on the stairs, and Piper is at last off the hook for her mom's broken leg.

And when Chief surprises the family by returning home early, they celebrate with an end-of-summer trip back to the UFO beach house, where Piper designs and oversees the construction of a spectacular sand castle.

Mom studied my drawing. "Piper, you really are a talented artist!"

"I guess I just take after Coco Kappel," Piper said.

When a National Book Award author turns her hand to the art of the beginning chapter book, it is cause for celebration. First-time chapter book readers have the chance to begin their solo reading experience with well-drawn characters who seem to come alive right off the pages of print. Holt's second in the delightful Piper Reed series continues the development of an engaging three-dimensional protagonist whose goal is someday to soar with the Navy's Blue Angels.

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