I was at the apex of this book as I sat eating my lunch on the Wellington waterfront one beautiful day, and I swear to god somebody could have had a vicious fight a metre away and I would not have lifted my head. This book is an immersive joy to read.
Lenny is small, pointy and unremarkable. She is a few years older than her brother Davey, who is perfectly normal for five years. Until he isn’t. Overnight, he goes from being a perfectly normal size, to 4’ 3”. Lenny and Davey live with their mum, and she works evenings at a rest home to provide shelter and food for them.
Around the time Davey starts growing, the family enter a competition to win a full set of Burrell’s Built-it-at-Home Encyclopedias, delivered monthly over three years. They win, thanks to their mum’s slight stretching of the truth, and so the structure of the book is set – the things the kids learn from the fervently awaited parcels of knowledge creating a narrative backdrop to the world of Davey and Lenny as Davey grows, and grows, and doesn’t stop.
Author Karen Foxlee has skilfully created the most fantastic character I’ve read in awhile – and I read A LOT of books, particularly those aimed at smart 8-12 year olds. Lenny observes everybody around her with a clarity that gives you a full sense of what their character is – Mother, Mrs. Gaspar of the glorious dreams, the suspicious Great-Aunt Em and the creepy Mr. King from the fruit store.
As a result of the Encyclopaedia, Lenny is obsessed with beetles, and wants to become a coleopterist. ‘That day in class I counted the notches on a Goliath beetles legs in my head. I imagined them and I counted them and it calmed me…. Goliathus goliatus, I repeated, again and again in class that day after Davey went home with growing pains. They were words. …And words felt good and solid.’
Both Lenny and Davey live from story to story, and new fact to new fact, but as the facts of their unique situation overcome them, they devise a way out together: they will go to Great Bear Lake, where Davey will build a log hut, something he is certain he knows how to do thanks to the Encyclopaedia.
‘The L issues brought ladybugs and lacewings, larder beetles, leafwings and leatherbacks. I had dreamed of the family Lampyridae, the fireflies, and I was not disappointed. For Davey, L contained log cabins. Davey drew log cabins…He borrowed How to Build a Log Cabin from the library again and again.’
The book is punctuated with dates and a measurement for Davey. It is also punctuated by letters from Lenny’s Mother to Burrell’s Encyclopaedias – the fact they try to get her to pay for the covers for the encyclopaedias turns into personal correspondence with Martha Brent, who bends the rules throughout to get Davey his favourite letters – E for eagles, F for falcons. ‘I thought I would send all the H issues at once, for Davey, because I know he is sure to like hawks and perhaps hummingbirds.’
One book I can think to compare this to is The Book Thief. There are secrets and shared stories that become the spaces where hope grows. There is tragedy, and levity, and joy and humanity. It is a wonderful story, and one I’d recommend to anyone.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Lenny’s Book of Everything
by Karen Foxlee
Published by Allen & Unwin