Kimberly Willis Holt is a mighty talented author, in my humble and sometimes not-so-humble-and-rather-loud opinion, and she’s got a whole bunch of awards and honors backing me up on that claim. In her first chapter book, Piper Reed: Navy Brat (Henry Holt; August 2007; review copy), Holt takes her talented muse as well as her own childhood experience as a “navy brat” and brings us a spunky character in the form of Piper Reed (“spunky,” I know, seems overused for many chapter book protagonists, but, hey, the shoe fits).
In twelve short chapters, we read about the ups and downs of being not only a middle child, but also the daugher of a Navy Chief — not an officer, mind you, but the highest rank an enlisted man can be in the U.S. Navy — who is fond of saying, “when a man joins the Navy, his family joins the Navy.” Her father “fixed jets better than anyone,” and Piper prides herself on being the only daughter to repeatedly — and quite playfully and lovingly — salute him (“My sisters needed to learn some respect”). Every couple years and sometimes less, the family has had to move; in the opening chapter, the family is in San Diego, their first home not on a military base, yet before that they lived in Texas, Guam, Mississippi, and New Hampshire — at least in Piper’s lifetime. And there, immediately in that first chapter, we see that the girls’ father (Piper has an older sister, Tori, and a younger sister, Sam) is announcing during dinner a move to “Pepsi-Cola,” Florida — as Sam understands its pronunciation anyway — in two weeks, much to Tori’s disappointment. Even Piper, always up for an adventure, is a bit bummed: She will miss her beloved Gypsy Club treehouse meetings with her friends in the family’s current home — not to mention her neighbor, Mr. Nelson, and his German shepherd, Kip (“If we ever had a dog, I’d want him to be just like Kip”).
And it’s on this note that the family heads out for their new home in Pensacola, with a stop along the way to visit extended cousins and other family in Louisiana in the lively chapter, “Adventures in Piney Woods.” As the family tries to get settled in Pensacola, Piper tries to overcome some of her anxiety and make new friends. She even gets some surprise help in the form of Tori, with whom she typically argues but who suddenly appears as Madam Tova on the day she promises her wannabe friends from her new school a reading from a fortune teller. There are some advantages, after all, to moving into a smaller home with vents on the shared wall between bedrooms, vents that allow for secrets to be heard:
When they were gone I couldn’t help myself. I gave Tori a great big hug.
She shrugged away. “Mush. What’s that for?”
“For helping me and lying.”
“I didn’t lie, Piper. I was pretending.”
“But I don’t get it. How did you know?”
Tori pointed to the vent on the shared wall between our rooms. “There are no secrets in the Reed house.”
But that wasn’t true. There was one, and I’d never tell it. Tori Reed would never know that I thought she was the best big sister in the whole wide world.
And that brings us to what lies at the heart of these entertaining tales. Piper Reed’s circumstances may be that her family roams, she never feels as if she can be rooted in one spot, and her father is, sadly, away from home for extended periods of time. But the book’s larger themes of familial love and sibling rivalry (and overcoming such squabbles and standing up for your sister, even when she’s being a pain) — and don’t forget that first time your parents say you can finally get a puppy — are universal and will resonate with young children eager for a spirited, new set of stories in chapter book form. Let’s not forget, too, that Piper’s energy is infectious; I’m tempted to throw her favorite phrase into my own conversations — “Get off the bus!”, a phrase she and her Gypsy Club invented and decided would “circle around the whole world. We’d become so famous they’d put our names in the newspaper.” Do you think I’ll get funny looks?
The Booklist reviews states this is, apparently, the first in a series of Piper Reed books (whose relaxed line drawing illustrations by Christine Davenier match well the carefree tone underlying the stories). Well, get off the bus! (See? There. I did it). Let’s hope so. This is a chapter book I’d enthusiastically place in the hands of a practicing reader.