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Jacky Ha-Ha

Review

Jacky Ha-Ha

written by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein with illustrations by Kerasco√ęt

Told from Jacky’s perspective, JACKY HA-HA, written by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, is presented as a memoir of sorts. The story unfolds as a letter to her (read: Jacky’s) daughters, (a majority of the book itself takes place in the early/mid-90’s, so it is told in the past tense --- sort of), on the eve of an acceptance speech that now-adult Jacky is giving at the Oscars. Life has always been just a bit complicated for Jacky, known since kindergarten as Jacky Ha-Ha --- and this school year doesn’t look to be any different. In fact, this is where her life changes in almost every way imaginable. Stuck age-wise almost exactly in the middle of a large family of girls, she’s not the youngest, not the oldest. She’s just, well, there. This is the story of when she stopped simply being there, found her voice, and, really, her calling.

"This book could lead to some interesting and fruitful conversations about dealing with expectations...as well as questions of confidence and how, exactly, one might find it."

Dealing with a significant stutter since she was a young child, Jacky Hart --- given the nickname JACKY HA-HA by one of her less than pleasant classmates in kindergarten --- is the classic middle child. Routinely ignored, not necessarily a natural troublemaker yet constantly finding herself in trouble, Jacky is always “on.” Jokes, quips and performances are her daily routine, be it at school, at home, or for her grandmother, who lives in a nursing home. While her mother is away fighting in the Gulf War, her father is working regularly as a lifeguard on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. And while Jacky seeks the attention she’s not getting at home from her friends and schoolmates, she also manages to find herself with more attention --- and detentions --- than she wants. Luckily, Jacky is saved by a determined principal and an adventurous and spirited teacher who both know that Jacky is wasting her potential. Enlisted in the school’s production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and then, to her bewilderment, drafted into an Oratorical contest, Jacky is challenged by these two major happenings while at the same time dealing with home and family troubles. And this is all after she climbs to the top of a ferris wheel and vows to shed the Jacky Ha-Ha persona and devote herself to being, simply, Jacky Hart. It’s a big, weird, transformative year for Jacky and we’re along for the ride.

Taken as a series of episodic adventures, JACKY HA-HA moves along at almost breakneck speed. As a whole, it manages to work through a lot of big ideas and issues that a young lady Jacky’s age might face. The conceit of the story being a letter to her daughters allows for some suspension of disbelief when it comes to how characters interact with each other, as well as how many “life lessons” can be handed down over the course of one school year. The pace is as frenetic as Jacky herself, while the language and interactions are purposely ideal. What’s most interesting about this story, though, stems from the very adult challenges Jacky has to face --- worry over her mother being overseas during the conflict in the Gulf, the increasing and increasingly unexplained absences of her father, her own sense of self-preservation and its effect on those around her. It’s an alarming amount for anyone to have to deal with, but part of the charm of the book is not necessarily getting into the how of dealing with any one situation (though that’s talked about), but simply acknowledging the fact that you can. An inspiring message to the book’s target audience, to be sure.

For kids of a certain age --- in this case, the late pre-teen to early teenage years --- this book could lead to some interesting and fruitful conversations about dealing with expectations (both their own and those of their parents and teachers), as well as questions of confidence and how, exactly, one might find it. And again, the very adult situations that Jacky has to deal with and work through may not exactly echo everyone’s childhood experiences, especially at that point in their life. However, this story makes for a great foundation for understanding when difficult situations do arise. Even more, by eschewing the typical pre-teen/early teen internal drama in favor of some fairly heavy external drama, Patterson lends JACKY HA-HA a weight that manages to sneak up on the reader since it’s hidden so well inside the book’s lightning pace. It’s a clever trick to have pulled off, and certainly seems like something Jacky Ha-Ha would have done herself.

Reviewed by Jared William Bowers on April 11, 2016

Jacky Ha-Ha
written by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein with illustrations by Kerasco√ęt