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The Decoding of Lana Morris    by Laura Rhoton McNeal & Tom McNeal order for
Decoding of Lana Morris
by Laura Rhoton McNeal
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In the June heat of Two Rivers, Nebraska stands a two-storey foster home, where the 'cicadas are whirring in the cottonwood'. Within the home are five foster children, four of them with special needs. Sixteen-year old Lana Morris was placed there six-months ago by Protective Services as a special needs - limited options resident.

Lana's mom ran off to who-knows-where ages ago, and dad died of an accident in prison when Lana was six-years old. He gave Lana a two-dollar bill which she rolls up tightly and carries in the crease behind her left ear. Lana is always wishing for something - that life were different, that she was somewhere else and someone else. Three road-cruising (when not breaking and entering) teens appeal to Lana, who wishes K.C., Trina, and Spink would ask her to join their club. Next-door neighbor Chet is part of the cruising scene now and then, and if they do say yes to Lana joining them, she rides in the trunk. Lana stores happy family albums under her bed, sketches as a hobby, and listens to Chet broadcasting his late night K-SOD podcasts.

As for the foster parents, Veronica Winters refers to her charges as Snicks (special needs kids), and to Lana as Little Miss Attitude. Locks are kept on the fridge and medicine cabinet, and behavior charts mounted on walls. Whit is a good-looking house-painter, who plays with the kids and is keenly attentive to Lana (she is attracted to him in return). Veronica has a special relationship with her doctor, while Whit has been spending a lot of time painting a widow's house.

Lana joins the club on a drive to a town named Hereford, where shops are boarded up and most residents are at the Town Picnic. Lana spots a sign for Miss Hekkity's Oddments & Antiques. Inside are cases of old books, antiques, and school awards. Taped to the cash register is a neatly-printed poem: 'Borrow from your father / Borrow from your mother / The price you see / Is the price it be / Don't ask me for another / - Miss Hekkity'. Looking through a box of clothing, Lana spots black leather boxes marked 'Ladies Drawing Kit $2'. Lana purchases one of the boxes with her two-dollar bill, with the understanding that she can retrieve her treasure when she comes into town again with two one-dollar bills to replace it.

The box has a musty smell, and a jolt travels through Lana when she opens it, looking at thirteen sheets of paper and a charcoal pencil. The pencil has a magic of its own when Lana begins to sketch; whatever she thinks about is captured fluently on the fine paper. Likewise, whatever she erases on the drawing disappears, and it's like making a wish come true. Lana just might have found the power that will change her life. After all, she muses that wishing isn't as harmless as it seems. A few happenings give a hint of that power - Veronica's car accident results in the loss of an arm; a sketch of Chet leads to the disappearance of a skin mole; Garth's mother shows up at the door; while 'the three-teen club' is arrested. Some wishes turn sweet, some go sour, but then there are those that have a silver lining.

The strength of Laura & Tom McNeal's The Decoding of Lana Morris is not in the arena of magic, but in the reality of what can happen in a foster home and the treatment of children and adults with special needs. The beauty of this story is Lana's coming to terms with the importance of compassion, learning to care for the residents in the home, recognizing the 'specialness of each one', and a teen's journey into maturity. Note that the authors donate 10 percent of net royalties from the sale of this book to The Arc of the United States, a non-profit organization that advocates the rights and full participation of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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