BookBrowse Reviews Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli

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Hokey Pokey

by Jerry Spinelli

Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli X
Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2013, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2014, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Ellis Smith
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Jerry Spinelli uses the vibrant make-believe world of Hokey Pokey to shine a light on childhood's triumphs and tribulations.

The land of Hokey Pokey is unlike any other. It is inhabited by kids, only kids, not a grown-up in sight. Well, except for the Hokey Pokey man, who arrives daily, to dish out flavored ice to everyone.

Here, a first-day Newbie pops out of the Tattooer after having exchanged his diaper for a brand-new tattoo. He looks for the first Big Kid he can find and shows off the barely dry ink art on his belly. The pairing of the Newbie and the Big Kid is "instinct for the Newbie – duty for the Big Kid." Before the first day ends, the Big Kid must show the Newbie the ropes; he must impart the four rules of Hokey Pokey:

  1. Never pass a puddle without stomping in it.
  2. Never go to sleep until the last minute.
  3. Never go near Forbidden Hut.
  4. Never kiss a girl. (Or boy, depending on who the Newbie is).

Jack is the biggest of the Big Kids. He is known throughout Hokey Pokey – revered by every boy in the land and sufficiently hated by the girls his age. His posse, LaJo and Dusty, and he, make up the Three Amigos, and they go everywhere together. From the Great Plains where a band of wild bikes (yes, bikes!) roam, to the steep terrain of Gorilla Hill, to The Forbidden Hut, which is on its own island past the jungle and the sandy creek beach.

On the day Hokey Pokey begins, Jack wakes up and, before he even opens his eyes, he knows something is wrong. This feeling is confirmed when he looks next to him and sees that his trusty bike, ScramJet, is missing. Missing! And he knows just who took it. Jubilee – the girl Jack hates more than any other.

What follows is a beautifully crafted account of this one life-changing day. Jerry Spinelli alternates voices in Hokey Pokey – between Jack; Jubilee; Destroyer, a big bully of small stature; and LaJo or Dusty. Together they weave a magical, yet utterly real account of what it means to begin to grow up. In an interview, Spinelli says:

When I was a young boy in the '50s there was this man in Norristown called the Hokey Pokey man…He was from Italy and he would push this white cart with two handles and big wooden wheels up and down the streets of Norristown. He had this huge block of ice that he would scrape with a big metal scraper, dump it out into a paper cone and drizzle with one of his container of syrupy flavors. He had it down pat and he knew what time the kids were getting out of what schools, and there he would be.

So, the Hokey Pokey man became absolutely iconic in Norristown. If you go to Norristown now and ask people who have lived there all their lives, their eyes will glaze over. At the time he was just part of the scene, you did not give him much thought. But, forty, fifty years later there is a treasured memory and a signature memory that represented that time and place in a way few other things could. And now that is gone forever, along with the Hokey Pokey man himself.

Hokey Pokey is chock full of details like the Hokey Pokey shaved-ice man. Spinelli captures them all perfectly and organizes them into a vibrant landscape. A place filled with quintessential (idealized) kid-games and activities, even including the Snuggle Spot, a candy-cane striped house where one can get a furry snuggle from the Snuggler. A place infused with delicious, perfectly made-up words like dropflops, hoprocks, and groundcrinkle. The choices Spinelli makes in creating this world allow childhood to be not just a time of life, but an actual place of life too. And although he clearly uses details from his own childhood, Spinelli's Hokey Pokey world never sounds nostalgic or historical.

What is most amazing though, is how Spinelli articulates the jumbled mix of emotions that a child feels. He chronicles the push-and-pull of separating self from others; of wanting to grow up and yet wanting to stay a kid through and through. Spinelli manages to wholly – and sometimes painfully – portray the internal landscape of being a child, all against the mesmerizing, external landscape of Hokey Pokey.

Hokey Pokey is well suited for middle graders (ages 8-12) but will be wholeheartedly enjoyed by young adults and adults as well.

Reviewed by Tamara Ellis Smith

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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