cover image The Birthday Room

The Birthday Room

Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow Books, $19.99 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-688-16733-2

Two gifts on a boy's 12th birthday fortuitously bring an entire family closer together. Young Benjamin likes to draw and paint, but when his parents give him a present of a room to use as a studio, he feels pressured into becoming an artist. He is enthralled by his second gift: a letter from his Uncle Ian in Oregon, inviting Ben to come for a visit. Ben's mother, however, is not so enthralled; she still blames her younger brother for a wood-shop accident that caused Ben to lose a finger at age two. Not until Ben tells her, ""If I had to choose, I'd take the trip over the room,"" does she consent to the visit. As Ben spends time in Oregon with his mother, Uncle Ian, Ian's expectant wife, Nina, and the Deeter children who live nearby, he makes some important discoveries about his family and himself, and eventually finds a special purpose for his ""birthday room."" Once again, Henkes (Sun and Spoon; Protecting Marie) explores family relationships with breathtaking tenderness, showing how feelings of guilt, bitterness and fear can be quelled by more deeply rooted love. His understated narrative from Ben's perspective has a translucent quality that allows readers to discover the subtle dynamics among the adult characters right along with Ben. The characters here, especially Ben and the Deeter children, will be cherished. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)