Friday, December 02, 2016


by Edward Bloor

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (September 1, 2006)

Tangerine is an uplifting multi-threaded story, featuring a young protagonist who has a strong sense of self-worth despite being legally blind, that combines rite-of-passage with sibling rivalry, race issues, environmental concerns, football mania, minority communities and more, told brilliantly, without stodgy pontificating or sappy sentimentality.

Seventh grader Paul Fisher moves to Tangerine County, Florida, with his family to start a new school year at Lake Windsor Middle School (LWMS), leaving Houston and his friends behind without too much drama. Overshadowed by his older brother Erik, who is the center of the Erik Fisher Football Dream that his parents have intricately woven and diligently pursued thanks to Erik's phenomenal placekicking, Paul is left to his own devices most of the time, ignored, and underappreciated despite his superb goal-tending abilities for his school soccer team.

Paul wears thick glasses to help him see better. His brother originated this story of Paul staring at the solar eclipse for too long and thus losing his visual acuity. Paul is not sure that story is true, but, he dare not challenge his brother as Erik is quite the mean-spirited bully who hides it well around his parents. His parents don't seem too forthcoming to clarify this vision issue either.

Between the stench of the muck fires that would never go out, and the swarm of mosquitoes that thrive in the swamp created when misguided folks tried to douse the muck fire with gallons of water, life in Tangerine County is not all pleasant. Add to it the very real danger of being hit by lightning, as well as drowning in a sinkhole while sitting in the classroom, life can be positively dangerous.

Indeed, when during football practice, one of the kids of the high school football team is struck by lightning and dies, folks just take it in their stride and don't even suspend practice the next day, carrying on as if nothing can be more important than NFL dreams.

And yes, a sinkhole gobbles up quite a few of the portable classrooms of LWMS, with the kids just barely escaping death. If all this seems highly improbable, think again.

Paul Fisher is furious that his mom demanded a tour of his new school explicitly declaring that he is "legally blind", a tour that was not offered willingly by the Principal at the outset, but was reluctantly given owing to Paul's limitation. She goes so far as to sign him up for IEP as if to emphasize the "visually handicapped" idea, which as it turns out, disqualifies him to play in LWMS's soccer team, despite being the best goalie that a team can hope for.

"I followed slowly, angry at Mom for calling attention to my eyesight. She wanted a tour of the place because she's nosy and wants to see everything for herself. It wasn't because I can't see, because I can. I can see just fine."

Though Paul is visually impaired, he has never considered it a disability. He has sharp insight and perception when it comes to people around him, especially his parents who seem to always focus on the wrong things while ignoring the important things staring at them. His thick glasses has never stopped him from being a first-rate goalie for his school team so far. Nor has it stopped him from being deeply observant and profoundly astute for a kid his age.

"But I can see. I can see everything. I can see things that Mom and Dad can't. Or won't."

Or won't. That's the key.

The plot thread of the Tangerine Middle School (TMS) kids and their community where, as Paul puts it, "the minorities are the majority," is superbly developed. As a result of the sinkhole incident, Paul gets an opportunity to change schools, and he voluntarily opts to go to TMS, known as the middle school for troubled youth. Paul makes himself fit in and works hard to get on the soccer team, even if not as a starter. The citrus farming with its threat of freeze, the bare minimum subsistence, the hardworking Cruz family, the all-too-painful story of Antoine Thomas and his sister, Shandra... There is so much going on in this book that one cannot just put it down and walk away not knowing how it all works out...

Rather than reveal all the lovely details, I think I'll stop here, allowing myself a few more words to gush about this book. While some situations may seem a bit contrived for the dramatic effect, the book is very realistic in terms of relationships, rivalries, priorities, lifestyles -- conditions of life -- in what appears to be an idyllic place that was once the Tangerine capital of the world. Paul is memorable and I can't help but hope that kids in his situation have that level of understanding and maturity to handle what life throws at them. Paul reaches for the light when he could have abandoned levelheadedness and sought the dark. He looks for the positives, not faults, he never complains and he knows what's right even if his own family doesn't acknowledge it.

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