Both “My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich,” by Ibi Zoboi, and “Finding Orion,” by John David Anderson, are about grandfathers. In one case it’s a beloved grandfather who is far away, and in another it’s a little-known grandfather whose death triggers a scavenger hunt and family adventure.
Both books also have an outer-space element. In “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the main character, Ebony-Grace, bonds with her grandfather (an aerospace engineer with NASA) over “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” In “Orion” Rion’s mother is the director of a university planetarium and names her children after constellations (Cassiopeia/Cass, Orion/Rion and Lyra). But from there these two stories are quite different.
“My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich” is set in Harlem. Ebony-Grace is a geeky black girl with thick glasses who is obsessed with space, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”
The story begins when Ebony-Grace’s mother sends her to visit her father in Harlem for the summer. To Ebony-Grace, who lives in comfort with her grandfather and mother in quiet, clean Huntsville, Ala., everything in Harlem is loud, dirty and broken.
Ebony-Grace would rather stay home with her grandfather, one of the first black aerospace engineers to integrate NASA, than deal with the kids her age on her father’s block.
But the reader understands that there is some trouble back home, both at Grandfather’s work and also with his health, and her mother needs Ebony-Grace to stay in Harlem until things settle down.
Ebony-Grace compares everything to outer space: sidewalk cracks are like moon craters; kids running around are like asteroids. She has a hard time not bringing outer space up in every situation.
The kids in her father’s Harlem neighborhood are more interested in break dancing, rapping and Double Dutch jump rope than rockets and space exploration.
Zoboi does a good job making the reader feel the rhythm and the sounds of Harlem of the mid-1980s. Harlem is really a character in its own right in this story.
The Harlem kids tease Ebony-Grace, calling her Outer Space Ebony-Grace. When a group of girls her age dub themselves the Nine Flavas (of ice cream, as in Mint Chocolate Chip Monique and Butter Pecan Bianca), they call her an Ice Cream Sandwich — black on the outside, white on the inside.
None of this seems to bother Ebony-Grace much. Her lack of social awareness and her focus on returning home is quite striking in its intensity.
While Ebony-Grace is the odd one and doesn’t care about fitting in with “normal” people, Rion, in “Finding Orion,” dreams of having a normal family.
The cast of characters in “Finding Orion” includes Rion Kwirk, a Midwestern boy who cringes at his wacko family; his father, Fletcher, chief flavor chemist at a local candy company, who wears a cow-patterned lab coat with “science is udderly awesome” printed on it, has a closet full of garish bow ties, and creates gems like garlic-flavored jelly beans; Rion’s older sister Cass, a theater geek and owner of a pet python; Lyra, his little sister, a miniature genius who knows the funerary habits of many esoteric cultures and reads the dictionary for fun; and Rion’s mother, who has named the children after constellations, is allergic to everything and has countless phobias.
There is also Grandpa Kwirk and his sister, great-aunt Gertrude, who live next door to each other in Fletcher’s hometown, four hours from Rion’s family.
The fun begins when a clown comes to Rion’s family’s front door with a singing telegram to tell them that Grandpa Kwirk has died. Rion only sees his Grandpa Kwirk and Aunt Gertie at Christmas for four days. Relations between Rion’s father and Grandpa Kwirk are strained. But now Rion’s whole family returns to his father’s hometown in rural Illinois.
The singing telegram is only the beginning. Aunt Gertie insists that, based on Grandpa Kwirk’s wishes, instead of a funeral the family will hold a FUN-eral.
The event is held in the local park, with performances by a barbershop quartet and then a marching band.
When Rion’s father opens the closed casket after the FUN-eral to make his peace with Grandpa Kwirk’s death, he finds the casket empty.
There is only a note, which sends the entire family on a scavenger hunt around town trying to find Grandpa Kwirk’s ashes. I won’t give away the ending but there are many surprises, as you can imagine, along the way.
Despite their surface similarities, these two books are quite different in their tone.
In “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the reader sympathizes with Ebony-Grace’s feelings of loneliness and frustration. We wince at her social awkwardness and we worry about her grandfather for the entire book.
“Orion,” on the other hand, is just flat-out funny. Even though it explores serious issues having to do with family relationships and long-held grudges, the story leaves the reader with a grin on their face.
So, depending on your reading needs, I think one or the other of these will hit the spot!