Saltwater Taffy

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Saltwater Taffy Book Poster Image
Adventure tale sinks under weight of laudable goals.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The treasure hunt is based on the real lives of the pirate Jean Lafitte and his son. Classic ciphers are explained as the kids try to unlock the puzzle. 

Positive Messages

Scott puts the lessons taught by his parents into practice and realizes how valuable they are: to be honest, to have self-respect, to approach life as an adventure and with an open mind. A few adults share similar guidance and advice. On the flip side, Scott and his friends engage in a lot of questionable behavior in pursuit of treasure (including using explosives, breaking and entering, and stealing). And, despite all the good moral lessons, there's a surfeit of dodgy messages: a tomboy reinventing herself to fit in, an elderly man whose lost limb is played up as part of what makes him "a monster," a character presented as wise and caring who spies on children and women from a distance with surveillance equipment.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Scott values his friendships over everything else, including seeking riches. Another boy who's often the butt of jokes discovers his self-confidence and begins standing up for himself, firmly and fairly. The kids lie to adults repeatedly to hide their activities. They pelt a police officer's horse with BB pellets, set off a homemade candy-and-soda bomb, and break into a man's home.

Violence

A local character is rumored to feed runaway children to his dog, and he wields a gun around the children. Another adult pursues the kids with a baseball bat when he catches them trespassing. A bear is killed by poachers. The children are intentionally buried in a cave by an adult who wants to beat them to the treasure. A boy is believed dead after being washed away in a river. To steal back a map from another treasure hunter, the kids provoke police officers' horses, yank a bench out from beneath an elderly man, and set off an improvised explosive.

Sex

The protagonist marvels at "Miss America" as she hangs laundry and is desperate to catch the eye of a rude but beautiful girl. An adult man takes surreptitious snapshots of the town librarian, which a young girl points out is "creepy." A tomboy undergoes a makeover in a bid to be more like other girls and thus wins the protagonist's affection.

Language

An adult complains about "damn kids," and the children use the words "gyp" and "heck."

 

Consumerism

Several brand names are mentioned, including Smith & Wesson, Wallabee shoes, Fruit of the Loom, Schwinn, Mustang, Pixy Stix, Tootsie Roll, Slurpee, Slip-n-Slide, Mentos, and Louisville Slugger. The Saltwater Taffy website encourages children to become affiliates and earn money by selling the book.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An adult character stops at a bar each night for a beer. One boy's dad confines his cigar-smoking to a boat because his wife warns the family about the dangers of emphysema.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that although Saltwater Taffy has many classic elements of a treasure-hunting adventure, including betrayal, violence, and deceit, it drives home messages on the value of friendship, self-confidence, and self-respect. The children set off M-80 explosives and pelt rivals with water balloons from a rooftop, and the book explains in detail how the children create a soda-and-candy bomb they set off near an elderly man who's double-crossed them -- which is why we recommend this for kids age 9 and older, slightly higher than the publisher's recommendation of age 8 and up. A tomboy reinvents herself to win attention from a boy focused on the town beauty. There are some unflattering characterizations: Another child is repeatedly described as pudgy and lazy, a portly ice cream vendor is named "Fatman," and much is made of the fact that the junkyard owner has only one leg. The related website encourages children to become affiliates and earn money by selling the book.

 

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What's the story?

Port Townsend, Wash., is swarming with treasure hunters hoping to solve the annual Keys of Lafitte puzzle, which supposedly leads to long-lost treasure. When 13-year-old Scott and his four friends unlock the cipher, they're launched on the adventure of a lifetime. The kids face obstacles large and small -- jeering bullies, a black bear, a double-crossing old man, and a cave-in, along with their own doubts and insecurities. In pursuit of pieces of eight, Scott discovers the true treasures of life.

Is it any good?

SALTWATER TAFFY is a decent yarn with a heart of gold. It offers great material for fans of ciphers, maps, and pirate history, enlivened with R.C. Nason's cinematic artwork. Unfortunately, it's undermined by endless sermonizing and so-so writing. Author Eric DelaBarre has great intentions, working in "treasure tips" ("If you want to be great, you have to think great thoughts") and a heartfelt afterword. Unfortunately, the book sounds as if it's being narrated by a motivational speaker rather than a 13-year-old kid. Whenever the action gets going, Scott pauses to reflect on his life journey and share yet another epiphany. "I decided to look at my life from a place of happiness," he declares soon after watching his friend swept away to his presumed death in a raging river. The age disconnect pops up in large and small ways, as when a boy's construction of an anachronistic soda-and-candy bomb is compared to "a bartender skewering olives."

Parents may appreciate the life lessons more than their children do. They should be aware that the children in the story engage in behavior that decades ago might have been laughed off as kids being kids -- M-80 explosives and water balloons -- but today would land them in real trouble. Even worse, adults are sometimes complicit and the children face no consequences. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the children's questionable behavior -- from setting off M-80s to breaking into someone's home -- in pursuit of treasure. Given that their rivals are so underhanded, is the kids' behavior justified? 

  • Which treasure-tips ring especially true for you?

  • What might be the consequences if kids today set off an M-80 or a soda-and-candy bomb in a public place? Why do you think it's presented as less of a big deal at the time this story's set?

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