A Clatter of Jars by Lisa Graff

Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots was a National Book Award nominee in 2014, and it was highly recommended by many people I trust. However, I never did manage to read it. If 2016’s sequel, A Clatter of Jars, is any measure, then I missed out and need to go back and pick up a copy of A Tangle of Knots.

A Clatter of Jars is an intricate, multi-layered story of giftedness and ordinariness and sibling jealousy, the suffering it can cause, apology, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The story, told from six different viewpoints of the campers in Cabin Eight at Camp Atropos for Talented Children, weaves in and out of the lives and magical talents of these campers to produce a sometimes confusing, always fascinating, tale of how family and community can grow strong if only we give up our place in the spotlight for the sake of others and ask forgiveness for our selfish and impulsive misdeeds.

I did like the characters and the complexity of this fantastical story. Lily can levitate objects by concentrating her mind on them. Chuck and Ellie, the Frog Twins, can identify the species of any frog within croaking distance. Renny is famous for reading minds, and his brother Miles may have his own secret Talent. All of the other children at the camp have Talents, too, and the way the talented children learn to work with, and sometimes against, one another makes for a wild ride of a story.

BUT. I was repeatedly thrown out of the story by two plot issues, one major and another minor. Am I behind the times? I know things are changing fast, but does any summer camp for middle schoolers—ages eleven, twelve and thirteen—house boys and girls together in the same cabin? Really? Lily, Renny, Miles, Chuck, and Ellie are assigned to Cabin Eight at Camp Atropos–two boys, brothers, and three girls. Really? This cabin assignment was just weird. There’s no boy-girl attraction, no crushes, in the story; it’s all about sibling rivalry and brothers and sisters trying to work out their sibling relationships. BUT. I kept wondering whether the author had any specific camp in mind when she wrote the book. I even looked it up. Coed camps for this age group are a thing, fine, but all of the ones I found on the internet separated boys and girls into different cabins. I can only begin to imagine the possible problems a camp would run into if boys and girls this age were assigned to share cabins. (The minor problem was the swimming policy. I don’t think camp administrators would allow children, even talented children, to just jump into the lake, anytime, and go for a swim by themselves, either.)

If you can ignore those two mistakes(?) or plot decisions(?), then you might just enjoy A Clatter of Jars quite a lot. You don’t have to read A Tangle of Knots to understand the sequel, but it might work better if you read the first book first. Or you can read them as I will be doing, backwards.

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