“One Mixed-Up Night” by Catherine Newman (Random House Books for Young Readers, 187 pages, $16.99)
Sixth-graders Frankie and Walter are obsessed with the IKEA catalog.
Lying in Frankie’s backyard hammock, eating popcorn and dreaming of a perfect life, they pass time playing the “picking game,” naming the item they most desire from each page of the catalog: DUKTIG tea set. ARVIKA swivel chair. GULORT rug. TVINGEN hand towel.
Rare visits to the IKEA store, they agree, are even better.
“Every showroom is like a perfect fake room pulled out of a perfect fake house,” explains Frankie, our narrator. “Like a life-size diorama of the idea of living somewhere stylish.”
When the best friends make plans to spend the night at IKEA – influenced by E.L. Konigsburg’s classic children’s book, “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” – they’re nervous, excited and ready for adventure.
An added bonus, Frankie hopes, will be helping Walter recapture some of his “essential Walterness.”
Catherine Newman, the author of two parenting memoirs, “Catastrophic Happiness” and “Waiting for Birdy,” tells an enjoyable and poignant tale in this, her first book for children.
The relationship between Frankie and Walter, friends since preschool, is sweetly compassionate, and Newman brings to life both the preteens and their family members. As the story unfolds we learn that Walter is processing a profound loss, and the author deftly portrays his family’s wide and confusing swath of grief.
The other star of the novel is IKEA, the ginormous chain of Swedish furniture stores known for their reasonably priced products, labyrinthine showrooms, delicious meatballs and infuriating assembly instructions.
Anyone who has ever visited an IKEA store – the nearest one is in Merriam, Kan. – and struggled with the mini-golf pencils or the maze of cardboard boxes will chuckle at the young narrator’s take on the shopping experience:
“The wonderful, amazing Ikea smell was everywhere: wood and cinnamon, potted ferns and coffee, and something that’s probably chemicals,” Frankie explains as her family arrives at their destination.
“Smell that!” I said, inhaling happily. “That’s the Ikea smell!”
The children’s mixed-up night is full of fun and mishaps – and enough mystery to keep you reading right to the end. Preteen readers will appreciate Frankie’s quest for independence and Walter’s struggle to express his emotions. Also notable: Newman makes a point of including diverse people and families.
For me this middle-grade novel had the feel of a KNUBBIG table lamp – bright, modern, quirky and delightful.