The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (2012), by Teresa Toten

Teresa Toten’s Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, strikes close to home. I bought it in paperback when it first came out, and Teresa was at Granville Island presenting with Eric Walters. I was anticipating with excitement talking to Teresa, with whom I was Facebook friends, at the end of the presentation, but it was not to be. I had received a call from my daughter’s school, and had to run; she had just switched meds, and they needed me to come. Teresa signed the book to my daughter as I ran out the door.

More than that, though, I discovered early in the novel how insidious my own (mild) OCD is. (I’ve been told by the professionals, though, that it is only “D” if it gets in the way of living a meaningful life… so I’ve got this.) Still, the first time Adam contemplates numbers, my mind grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. Prime numbers are particularly wonderful; it’s true. And 51. I love 51. It’s not prime, but it is in fact the product of 17 (my favourite prime number) and 3 (another number I love). Also 7. Seven is great. And 151 because of the symmetry. Six is probably the worst number, though, and is bright red. Three, on the other hand, is a gentle green and 7 fluctuates between icy and vibrant blue. Letters, too: B is a nasty tawny yellow. But perhaps I am revealing too much weird…

Still, you can see how Adam’s character resonates. Teresa Toten’s novel enables readers to begin to understand how deeply traumatic it can be when innate neurodiversity is compounded by puberty and exacerbated by familial difficulties. Adam walks a tightrope, suspended by his mental acrobatics over an ocean of uncertainty, excessive responsibility, and self-recrimination.

When Adam’s counsellor, Chuck, suggests that his therapy Group take superhero names to help them feel empowered, Adam chooses “Batman,” partner to the new girl Robyn’s obvious choice of “Robin,” “like the … well, you know.”

 … And even though he had never noticed girls before, not at all—okay a bit and sort of, but not really—Adam knew he had to save her, must save her, or die trying. For her, Adam would be and could be normal and fearless. He so wanted to be fearless. He could do it. He would be her superhero. … “Batman,” he said in a strong, clear voice. Adam Spencer Ross would be her Batman.

As Adam and Robyn grow closer, the complex dynamics of the therapy Group and his two-family life weave together with his insecurities, his sense of guilt, and his embarrassment regarding his OCD. Adam becomes more and more Robyn’s Batman, but he begins to drown in the overwhelming responsibilities both that he takes on and that others thrust upon him. His mother struggles with her own mental health issues, and Adam refuses to betray her confidence, certain that if he tries to get her help, he will be taken away from her and sent to live with his father. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except it would be abandoning his mother, who needs him: “His mother was fierce. Until she wasn’t.” His father’s home, in contrast, is neat and structured — but Adam is often the only person who can calm his five-year-old half-brother, who tends towards OCD himself. To top it all off, someone is sending vile anonymous notes to his mother, which she tries unsuccessfully to hide from Adam. It all becomes just. too. much. Something has to give.

Part of the answer is Adam’s growing maturity and greater engagement with the world around him.

Adam wasn’t sure why  he was getting these blinding little insights, but lately he’d started to notice the world around him a bit more. Just how much Chuck, Brenda [his step-mother] and his father had to put up with. Adam noticed it and it sucked that he noticed.
It was hard enough when he didn’t notice.

This growing awareness also enables him to take on some of the truths people around him are seeing:

“Yeah,” said Snooki. “Like, you are so here for everyone in here, all the time. I don’t think it even registers with you how much you carry. You worry about too many people, like your mom, and your fat friend, and your little brother, and“—she shot Robyn a look—”and God only knows who else. Cut yourself some slack, Batman.” …

“No crap, man. Too much is too much.” Iron Man was shaking his head.

Robyn’s rather snark reiteration of Snooki’s opinion reinforces the message:

You know you can’t save everybody, right? … It’s part of your problem, like Snooki was saying as she was gripping your knee. Once in a while, even that over-toasted airhead stumbles onto something. … You just have to save the world, don’t you. … But really, my very own Batman, you’ve got to let go of all those distractions, all those extra worries, and concentrate on yourself.

And most importantly for both Adam and the arch of the novel, their neighbour Mrs. Polanski delivers the sage advice that “It’s the really hard part of growing up—knowing when to leave.” So when Adam notices how well Robyn is recovering, he makes a truly heroic gesture:

“This—we, us—is not good for you, Robyn. … I need to concentrate only on me. I’m falling apart, Robyn. You can’t save me. You’re making it worse.” Everybody lies.

This is a pivotal  moment for Adam’s psychological growth; and what follows is the pivotal moment in the plot of the novel, but saying more would involve unwelcome spoilers. Adam’s small act of extreme courage sets the stage for recovery, and at the end of the novel we have no doubt that he will eventually move towards, not normalcy (“normal is a dryer setting”) but an inner strength that enables him to find balance.

At one point, Chuck tells Adam that “OCD has a more neurobiological than a psychological basis, although one’s emotional environment is critical to the presentation.” In this, as in so much of the depiction of neurodiversity in the novel, Teresa Toten is powerfully honest. Finding the balance of focus between self and environment is hard, and with Adam we have an example of both the difficulties and a path forward.

You can read more about OCD on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

Elatsoe (2020), by Darcie Little Badger

Misinterpreting a comment in her introduction, I at first thought that Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) was Darcie Little Badger’s first book, but it turns out that she is quite prolific. More books to add to my “want to read” pile, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

Elatsoe is full of magic realism that blends seamlessly with the imagination of youth and the stories of the Lipan Apache Nation. This seamlessness was actually a problem for me, as I am almost totally unversed in the Apache culture. At one point, Ellie tells her father, “Dad. We’re Apache. Wendigo is a monster for the northerners” (chapter 7). You can hear the eye-roll. Wendigo, however, is a creature I recognize; “northerners” includes Canadian Indigenous cultures… So while it was a learning experience, but my lack of knowledge rendered me unable to tell where magic realism and imagination bordered on—or overlapped—Indigenous story.

That aside, the combination was, well—magical. We have zombies and vampires and spiritualists and wizards all practicing under the auspices and control of governmental agencies. Ellie herself is intending to go into training as a paranormal investigator: “Her second goal was paleontologist, since she could always double-check her reconstructions with careful use of ghost dinosaurs” (chapter 4). Which brings us to what makes Ellie such an interesting protagonist.

So. Backing up to the opening pages of the book, then. I admit to being a bit flummoxed, but both the initial intrigue and its resolution spurred my interest and anticipation in reading on.

Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). After bringing the purchase home, she dug through her box of craft supplies and glued a pair of googly eyes in its shallow sockets. [So far, so normal…]

“I got you a new friend, Kirby!” Ellie said. “Here, boy! C’mon” Kirby already fetched tennis balls and puppy toys. Sure, anything looked astonishing when it zipped across the room in the mouth of an invisible dog, but a floating googly skull would be extra special. [At this point I thought: “Imaginary friend? How old is our protagonist?”]

Unfortunately, the skull terrified Kirby. He wouldn’t get near it, much less touch it. Maybe it was possessed by a demonic vacuum cleaner. More likely, the skull just smelled weird. …

“Look, a treat!” Ellie put a cheese cube in the skull’s mouth. Although ghosts didn’t eat, Kirby enjoyed sniffing his old favorites: chicken kibble, peanut butter, and cheddar. …

The world Ellie lives in only gets better. Ellie has inherited the natural abilities of “Six-Great,” her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, also Elatsoe, a legendary and “formidable warrior” who had learned how to raise the dead. The dead can also come to Ellie in her dreams, and when her cousin Trevor visits her one night to tell her his death was not accidental, asking her to discover the truth, her father believes her: “We will honor your cousin’s last wishes, ” he said. “Together. As a family.”

Here, Elatsoe veers off the path of expectation. Tradition—in late twentieth-century Western children’s literature at least—is for the parents to be either absent or problematic for the youthful protagonist developing a sense of self. I admit that this has changed in the last couple of decades, but it still seems true that Western youth approach adulthood through a sense of separation; in Elatsoe, maturity is acknowledged as an acceptance of and engagement in the power of family and community. I am sure that children’s literature critics have addressed the coming-of-age trope in Indigenous versus Western cultures; if not, here is fodder.

The investigations of Ellie and her friend Jay—himself part fairy—lead them to crash a charity ball held by a prominent doctor in a nearby community. Not only Ellie and Jay, but Ellie’s mother and aunt, and Jay’s sister, her basketball friends, and her vampire fiancé (and of course Ellie’s grandmother’s ghost mammoth—but you’ll have to read the book) all join in to prevent a paranormal catastrophe. They work together. And succeed. As a family.

Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink (2020), by Karen Autio

I’m a bit late for the early launch of Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink at the Vancouver Aquarium (22 September 2020), but in time for you all to buy copies for Christmas for the young ecologically minded readers in your lives. Inside Vancouver also recommends it as representative of Vancouver and [my hopeful interpretation] our environmentally sensitive ethos. Why, you might ask? What makes this book special amongst all the animal stories out there? The answer is partially given in my review of Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter when it came out in 2015. Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink contains the same level of interest and delight, with an added message of concern for our environment.

Kah-Lan and the Stink Ink

Kah-Lan is growing up. He longs “to leave the raft of female sea otters and pups … to explore the coastal waters. But not alone” (1). He remembers the dangers away from the raft, but his yearning is stronger than his fear.

The oldest male in the raft, Kah-Lan is unsuccessful at convincing other males to go with him, and so he does set out, alone, to find a raft of males to join. The descriptions of the sea otter pups frolicking in the currents, the power of the ocean waves that toss them, the octopus shooting its “cloud of black ink” at them create a feeling of other-worldliness tempered by the simple, accessible language. There is security in these descriptions, and familiarity. When Kah-Lan strikes out on his own, though, readers feel his wariness, a maturity learned from his antics with Yamka in his first book. Rejected by the male raft he approaches, Kah-Lan sets out to find other male youth, hoping to establish a new raft for mutual protection. More than a shortage of food and deadly orcas, Kah-Lan is now aware of another potential threat, one he does not fully understand: “Those strange furless ones that walk on their hind legs” (7-8).

Throughout his journey, the descriptions of what he sees and thinks are presented in words that reduce our complex world to a fictional sea otter’s comprehension: sea trees and sea forests; “strands of fish-web”; the furless Elders and furless pups; the “big shiny creatures that pass by the raft” (19); and of course the “stink-ink,” with its “smell from the shiny creature but worse” (23). Autio creates and effective and interesting balance between Kah-Lan’s understanding and diction and what is really happening as the “furless Elders”—in fact marine rescue workers—perform actions readers will recognize but he does not. The marine rescuers’ words are presented in italics, allowing a cognitive switch between Kah-Lan’s perspective and the reader’s world. We can feel Kah-Lan’s trepidation, the fear and curiosity combined, as he is taken to be healed from his encounter with the “stink-ink.” Again, as in the first Kah-Lan book, the real dangers of life in the wild, and the hazards—both natural and of human creation—are not glossed over. Danger and death are a part of a sea otter’s life. This knowledge is reinforced in Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink, and this time, the danger comes not from orcas but from a very real environmental threat. It is never to early to teach our children the dangers humans present to the ocean and all its inhabitants. It’s a damaged world we older generations have passed on to our children; the least we can do is help them understand the need to do better than we did. I would love to see Kah-Lan and the Stink-Ink not only on the shelves in elementary school libraries, but taught as part of the curriculum.

[Okay. That’s really not a comment I often make, and—interestingly—the book I most recently felt this strongly about was (wait for it) Karen Autio’s Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon, for a completely different reason. I stand by my recommendation in both cases.]

Perhaps the message has been getting through. Last week (8 December 2020), Amy Attas published an article in West Coast Traveller about the return of the sea otter to Haida Gwaii after 150 years. Let’s all keep at it, and maybe our oceans can be successfully restored.

The Druid and the Dragon (2020), by Kristin Butcher

I really enjoyed Kristin Butcher’s newest novel, The Druid and the Dragon. Not surprisingly, because ever since reading Return to Bone Tree Hill (2007) almost 10 years ago, I have enjoyed every book of hers I have read. But it’s been a while.

Butcher has written remarkable YA novels (Truths I Learned From Sam remains my favourite of her books), as well as books for younger readers (Isobel’s Stanely Cup is a fabulous historical novel for early readers), and a number of Orca Currents, “short, high-interest novels with contemporary themes written specifically for middle-school students reading below grade level.” The Druid and the Dragon is a departure for her, falling as it does into the fantasy subgenre; yet it is fantasy that middle-school readers, not only older teens, will readily engage with.

To being with, a simple thing: she includes a map! All fantasy novels involving travel need a map. That the map looks much like England is not an oversight, for the enemy invaders against whom King Redmond must defend his kingdom are Norsemen. We find ourselves in an implicit alternate history, where druid is a culture, not just a role, and the palimpsest of reality over earth-magic rings true.

Maeve, our protagonist, is torn, for she was not born a Druid, yet the Druids claim her as one of their own. Her difference in appearance and character to her family sets her apart, and we wonder if perhaps some interesting tale of her birth might be forthcoming. Not in this book, but I hold out hope; Druid is the first in a trilogy.

Disowned by her parents, but angry at the Druids who have lied to her, 13-year-old Maeve is forced to make very difficult decisions regarding her future.

[Bradan] said he wanted to take her on as an apprentice! The prospect sent Maeve into a panic. What if she accepted his offer and it turned out he was wrong …? If the Druids threw her out and her parents disowned her, she would have no one to care for her and nowhere to live.

Then a spark of defiance – something Maeve had felt from time to time in her life but never acted upon – flared inside her. … She wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t wanted; nor would she go where she didn’t belong.

We watch as her youthful anger and obstinacy gives way to adult logic and acceptance, carried through her training by the Druids, who she ultimately sees as the best port in the storm of her life.

While the Druid Bradan recognises a power in her, self-doubt remains her dominant characteristic; she lacks focus and patience, and struggles to learn to interpret her visions and the dreams of others. Her inate ability is ultimately called on before she feels ready, and the fate of their kingdom rests in her ability to convince a doubting King of her truth. Hoping not to give too much away, I will say that Maeve’s decisions at this crucial point in the narrative reveal a maturity – both as a person and as a Druid – that she still denies having.

Oh. And there’s a dragon. Of course. So what about the dragon? Underlying Maeve’s doubts and insecurities is an affinity with the natural world that she does not give much credence to. Readers couched in fantasy tropes will be shouting at her: “That’s a clue, you silly girl! Of course you have power!” And when she finds herself hiding in a cave with the dragon, Riasc Tiarna: “No, silly girl, not everyone can talk to dragons in their minds!” But Maeve’s insecurities are perfectly in keeping with the abused young girl who has been abandoned by her family and has not yet found where she belongs. As the narrative unfolds (with excitement and war and a battle between dragons, but you’ll have to read it yourself for the good bits), Maeve moves towards acceptance of her power and place in the Druid community. After the narrative storm subsides,

Maeve’s heart was so full she was sure it was going to burst. Never had anyone made her feel so special. Suddenly she wasn’t the least bit afraid of what lay ahead. “I want to continue to learn the ways of the Druids, and I want to learn all Bradan can teach me. I think I’m finally beginning to understand who I am – and why I am. … this is the life I was meant for.”

Given that there are two more novels in the trilogy, we can surmise that her lack of fear will be tested. She may not be afraid of what lies ahead, but readers will anticipate future hardships, and be anxious to see how she moves through them.

Butcher is not only an author, but an artist as well, and her Facebook followers have been enjoying teasers in the form of sketches of characters and scenes from the book leading up to its release last week. I’ve included a couple of my favourites, but the full gallery can be found on her website, where you can also read more about the trilogy and her other works.