Hokey Pokey
Jerry Spinelli
Knopf (Random House)
2013

You put your right foot in
You put your right out out
You put your right foot in
And you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey
And you turn yourself about
That’s what it’s all about…

And that sums up Hokey Pokey, Newbery Medalist (Maniac Magee) Spinelli’s latest middle grades offering. It sums it up brilliantly, in fact.

For the second time this week, I’m reviewing a work by an author whose former work I wasn’t so keen on. Although people really seemed to love Maniac Magee, I wasn’t wowed. Maybe I need to give it another chance and read some of Spinelli’s other works as well because I really enjoyed Hokey Pokey. And for the second time this week, I’m reviewing a book about a boy named Jack that involves a bit of magical realism. Funny how those things seem to be cyclical.

And yet Hokey Pokey is nothing like Navigating Early, despite their main character’s names. Hokey Pokey takes us back to the world of childhood and shows us what the seemingly overnight transition to adulthood is like. And it does indeed happen overnight.

Spinelli’s world of Hokey Pokey was terrific. I loved his new compound words (“bestfriendship,” “dropflopping,” “shadowblur”). I loved his place names (“Tantrums,” “Thousand Puddles”). I loved the feel of Hokey Pokey: an iconic place of childhood activity where children drink Hokey Pokeys when the Hokey Pokey man comes (like the ice cream truck), play on the playground, and bike everywhere on their two-wheeled steeds. The only electronic device in the picture was the giant cartoons screen where the youngest children liked to gather. Even when we hit our present, real world at the end of the book, we still only read about one TV.

Jack’s coming-of-age in this book is not because of some great event he lives through or some momentous decision he must make. Instead, it is simply time to grow up and involves much  more prosaic decisions like changing out his childish wallpaper to something more grown-up…or does it? Spinelli gives us a work in which the monumental shift from childhood to adulthood is seen for its significance, even if it’s evidenced by a small decision to not leave dirty socks on the floor.

This is one of those books that is hard for me to peg in terms of its young audience. I wonder, in fact, if it’s a book that grownups will enjoy more. Will a middle school student recognize the transformation as quickly? Will it resonate with him or her like it does for those of us who navigated the shift years ago? Will younger readers feel as nostalgic about such cartoons as Bugs Bunny and such games as jacks or simply riding bikes? I don’t know. It’s certainly worth finding out because Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey is fantastic.

Things to Note/Discuss

  • What does growing up mean? How do we help our children navigate that transition? 
  • What does “faith like a child” mean? 
  • Is there a true sense in which we need to grow up? How does our world encourage children to grow up in ways that aren’t as positive?

Cover image from goodreads; ARC from netgalley

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