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When we meet Malia, we notice that her interactions with peers and adults are a bit atypical for a junior high student. When a peer teases her about autism, we gain a clue into her personality. Although Dr. Barrow never specifies whether or not Malia places on the autism spectrum, some degree of autism would explain her quirky traits.
In addition to a possible autism diagnosis, Malia has a fairly dysfunctional family to contend with. When her mother runs off to the city to live with a "creep" of a boyfriend, Malia is left living with her grandpa. Her grandpa, meanwhile, is keeping Malia's dead grandma preserved in the family freezer, among their meat and vegetables. He is trying to find a way for Malia's grandma to continue to communicate with them, but only Malia is able to receive her grandma's "transmissions" through one of her heirloom necklaces. Malia knows that she needs to keep her social worker from discovering the truth about her grandma in order to remain living with her grandpa. Even though Malia and her grandpa are successful in keeping their secret, when Malia's grandpa learns he has a severe heart condition, he turns her over to social services. At this point, Malia learns that her mom and grandparents have lied to her for years, and her father is not dead, but is alive and living in Kenya.
Malia's Awesome African Adventure commences when she is put on a plane to Kenya, to live with her dad, his wife, and his preteen son. Malia has a hard time adjusting to her dad's scheduled, rule-based home, and ends up befriending the African cook, and a tiny dog called Teacup. At this point, the book becomes part mystery, part adventure. When Malia and Teacup decide to sleep in a tent in the yard in order to pass daily room inspections, they are kept busy avoiding cheetahs and an elephant stampede. When not dodging wild animals or Malia's stepbrother, they occupy themselves trying to discover who, exactly, Malia's father is, and why a customs inspector is so interested in him.
Throughout her adventures, Malia learns positive character attributes like bravery, honesty, open-mindedness, and how to make friends. She also realizes that judging people without all the facts can lead to some major mistakes. In the exciting climax, Malia realizes her dad loves her and is actually a good person. She also realizes that she must act to save Teacup, regardless of risk to herself. Upon returning to the States (after surviving a cargo hold, pirate attack, and being tracked down by the evil inspector) she learns that her mother loves her too. In fact, she has finished nursing school and is married to Malia's favorite teacher--not the creep.
There are a couple of instances of praying--Malia's grandpa prays for her as he sends her off to Kenya, and Malia prays the Lord's Prayer (because it was the only prayer she knew) when she is about to be caught by the inspector. There is also a brief discussion about whether all gods are the same as Allah. Malia asks a friend, "Do you think your God is a different God than my God?" Tahir answers, "No, Allah is Allah for everyone." They then agree that there must be a God because the world is too beautiful to be random. Delightful pencil sketches begin each chapter. Teacup is adorable, Malia has beautiful, big eyes and wild, curly hair, and each illustration is captioned by a corresponding quote from the chapter.
What I Like: My favorite part of the book is Malia. She is an unusual protagonist, because she is not socially adept or well-adjusted, and deals with phobias and an often-grumpy attitude. She provides a stark contrast to the syrupy, always-sweet protagonists of many "character-building" novels. At the same time, she is funny, likable, and resilient, and we see her grow and change as a result of her adventures.
I also like the fast-paced adventure and mystery elements of the novel. I meant to put it down half a dozen times, but ended up reading until midnight in order to find out what happened. The characters are quite complex and diverse--the African cook is very kind, but has three wives, Malia's stepmother is vain and frivolous, but good-hearted, and Malia's grandpa is eccentric but loves her immensely. We are kept guessing about the inspector and Malia's dad until the end, and even Malia's stepbrother and mom have good qualities. This type of book would be useful for children who tend to see the world in "good and bad" or "right and wrong" terms.
Dr. Barrow includes several fun and informative appendices. She includes a note on Kenya, Swahili terms, and a "creep alert" checklist (tips on staying safe and avoiding abusive situations and people), in addition to a discussion guide.
What I Dislike: There are a few plot and character inconsistencies that make the reading of the novel more difficult. The main issue is there is little explanation of why Malia's grandparents don't give her letters from her mother, and neither does her father. The story works when we think Malia's mother is uncaring and uninvolved, but the surprise of having Malia's mother married and happy to have Malia live with her is a bit of a stretch. If she was caring, wouldn't she have asked Malia to come live with her in the city for the summer, instead of allowing her to be shipped off to Kenya?
In another instance, Malia's father allows her to climb into the cargo hold of a ship and travel to America, in order to be with Teacup. Throughout the journey, the inspector tracks Malia through Teacup's embedded microchip, but this never occurs to her dad, despite his CIA training. Perhaps Dr. Barrow is showing us adults through Malia's eyes, and that is why they seem so inconsistent and don't act like we think adults should. If Malia indeed placed on the autism spectrum, she would miss social cues and would only be able to interpret adult behavior through concrete actions. However, I wish that there were more respectable adults in Malia's world.
The other issue of concern in Malia and Teacup: Awesome African Adventure is the fact that Malia's grandpa is trying to preserve his wife's body and find a way to communicate with her. Not only is this eccentric and disturbing behavior, the Bible specifically forbids communicating with people who have died. In Deuteronomy 18: 10-11, we read, "There shall not be found among you anyone who. . .calls up the dead." Speaking with the dead is too similar to praying to them, and it shows a lack of faith in God. Dr. Barrow could have shown Malia remembering things her grandma had said to her and having the same internal dialogue with her, without actually speaking to her while deceased.
Overall Rating: Very Good
Age Appeal: 9-13
Publisher Info: Barringer Publishing, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-9825109-0-2 ; Paperback, $14.95 Buy it at Amazon.com for $11.66.
Special Information: Some readers may find the idea of a dead grandmother in a freezer disturbing, and may object to the concept of trying to communicate with her. -- Christian Children's Book Review
'Malia & Teacup Awesome African Adventure' By Dr. Molly Barrow Illustrations by Erik Pflueger. (Barringer Publishing. $14.95)
REVIEWED BY PHILIP K. JASON Special to Florida Weekly
Naples psychologist Molly Barrow is all over the Internet. Google her name and you'll find her Web sites, her blog and dozens of references to her appearances and mentions in popular and specialized media.You can listen to her online radio show. You can read her well-reviewed book, "Matchlines." You can see her appear as herself in the 2008 film "My Suicide," which focuses on teenage depression. And you can find her article about selfesteem and her Malia and Teacup books in the spring 2010 issue of the prestigious journal, Children and Libraries. Dr. Barrow has made her reputation as an expert in improving relationships, whether the arena is couples intimacy or the workplace. Now she adds to her audience with a major venture into children's literature. Her Malia and Teacup series recently launched its first title: "Awesome African Adventure." It's a rollicking read for kids 9 years old and up, as well as their parents and grandparents. Grandma is dead but remains well preserved in the freezer, her voice often advising 12-year-old Malia. Dad is dead and mom has run off with a misfit beau, and the looney doings of her wheelchair-bound Grandpa are not quite what a middle-schooler needs for guidance. Understandably, Malia's demeanor has been less than pleasant. Her life at school has turned into a nightmare. She has frustrated her teachers, become a target of abuse from her classmates, and is threatened by the mean-spirited school psychologist with being taken away from Grandpa's abysmal though loving care. Then comes news that is both good and bad: The industrious school shrink has discovered that Malia's father is alive, remarried and living in Kenya. Soon, even though she feels a responsibility to stay with her ailing Grandpa, Malia is bound for Africa to live with a man who chose to disappear from her life 10 years earlier. In Kenya, Malia finds herself a second class citizen. Remote and demanding, her father insists on highly disciplined behavior, and Malia almost always fails to meet his expectations. Her stepmother is self absorbed as well as preoccupied with her pregnancy. Her stepbrother schemes to get Malia in trouble. Although her father's lifestyle indicates an abundance of wealth, allegedly from his success in the petroleum industry, Malia feels more at home with the loving and playful family of one of her father's African employees. Soon after arriving in Africa, she becomes responsible for an undersized poodle, a gift rejected by her stepbrother. The delightful Teacup provides Malia with emotional salvation during an arduous transition. Malia's adventures in Africa include partaking in a tribal ceremony, surviving an elephant stampede, rescuing Teacup from a monkey, witnessing a terrorist bombing in Nairobi and confronting a vicious government inspector who calls her father an assassin. Malia herself wonders about her father. It's obvious that he has a secret life, but not obvious just what the secret is. As Malia's dangerous adventures and family conflicts pile up, she strives to overcome her fears and stand up for herself. More and more, she demonstrates not only determination, but also the ability to solve problems, to be patient when necessary and to realize that while appearances are often deceiving, it is sometimes for a good reason. Young readers will identify with Malia's outsider sensibility, with her frustrations and -- one hopes -- with her growing resourcefulness and enhanced decision-making skills. While engaging her audience in high adventures in exotic settings, Dr. Barrow imparts important life lessons and advances knowledge about and tolerance for other cultures. For younger readers, Dr. Barrow has prepared "Out on a Limb," an abbreviated treatment of Malia and Teacup's African experience. In the pipeline: "Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon" set in Bhutan and "Queen to Bishop's Right," an English mystery. Dr. Barrow has found a recipe that mixes humor, action, respect and understanding in just the right proportions. Fanciful enough to hold a child's attention, and wise enough to help children grow up without sermonizing and without belittling their actual problems, these are the kinds of books that parents and teachers, as well as kids, have been seeking. -- FLORIDA WEEKLY October 8, 2009