Death Drop (2016), by Melanie Jackson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Death Drop (2016)

jackson-dropThe Orca Currents series, high-interest books with a simpler reading level aimed at teens, address issues as diverse as geo-caching (Kristin Butcher’s Caching In), archeological mysteries at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (John Wilson’s Bones), and normal teenage antics gone wrong (for example, Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act). Sometimes, though, we get a seemingly simple mystery, such as Melanie Jackson’s Death Drop. Protagonist Zeke’s legitimate concern about being late to practice, and thus losing a scholarship, is set against his worry about a little girl lost at Playland and his desire to unravel what turns out to be an increasingly interesting mystery. The newest ride at the fair—Death Drop—is based on the myth of Persephone’s time in Hades—including “a famous painting of Persephone, on loan from England” (3). Zeke’s classmate Dieter, the “class bookworm” (7), who is writing a report on the financial situation at the ride, has read classical mythology, and is familiar with the pre-Raphaelite painters, fills Zeke in on the juicier details of the myth and the intrigue surrounding the ride. Readers are thus shown a teen world in which learning plays a positive role in the success of the characters.

Approached by a little blonde girl as he queues for Death Drop, Zeke is stereotypically loath to help her: “I was a boy. Kids with problems needed a nice lady. A middle-aged, motherly type” (4). His attitude softens as she points to his LA Angels t-shirt: “Angels help people.” Faced with the uninterested, disengaged staff at the ride, Zeke takes on the task of finding her aunt and in the process discovers the illegal activities that lie beneath the fun of the fair.

A lost girl, a death-defying thrill ride, financial fraud involving a stolen painting, international intrigue: all bound together in a plot that works. Death Drop does not have Zeke and Dieter learning deep life lessons so much as employing their inherent compassion and generosity to counter the ill effects of adult greed. A short novel, certainly, but containing a fast-paced story centered on protagonists whose integrity and intelligence is essential in a satisfying narrative resolution.

Life with Darius (2009-2012), by Cynthia Stella Peters

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 18.1.

Book 1: Darius Gets Bullied
Book 2: Darius Gets Angry
Book 3: Darius Gets a Pet
Book 4: Darius Plays It Safe and Darius and His Many Different Feelings
Book 5: Darius is a Good Friend  and Darius Uses Good Manners
Book 6: Darius Practices Good Hygiene
Book 7: Darius Starts Exercising
Book 8: Darius Learns the Value of a Dollar

Peters - DariusThese books provide an obvious service in clearly presenting their topics to the young reader. The titles of the 10 stories in the series explicate the content so that the reader will know exactly what to expect: Darius Gets Bullied, for example, presents a scenario in which Darius gets bullied in a stereotypical way, responds with textbook insecurity, and in the end follows exactly the list of behaviours that adult educators expound as the right way to deal with bullies, beginning with trying to ignore the aggressor and ending with telling an adult. The problem with this scenario—a problem that is extended throughout the series—is that it merely reiterates the bullet points that teachers present to students in the classroom. Some of this advice is sound, some of it less so. That bullying is a serious issue few will dispute; how best to deal with bullying—either as adults or children—is a debate that still rages, with little consensus among experts. I could see young children reading Darius Gets Bullied and saying to themselves—as the students in a local school have recently said explicitly to the Parents’ Advisory Committee and the school administration—“That won’t work: the bullies will just get us after school” or “That won’t work, because the bullies don’t care if you punish them” or “That won’t work, because the bullies’ parents think their children are perfect.” Childhood is far more complicated than simple responses to problems such as bullying and anger management can accommodate. The stories in this series that deal with simpler issues, such as having good manners or looking after a pet, are far more effective, if a little trite.
Despite the superficial nature of these stories’ content, however, it never hurts to constantly reiterate messages to young readers: repetition will solidify the concepts in their minds. But I would wish for a more interesting narrative to do so, and more interesting images to accompany the narratives. These books—all 10 of them—are inoffensive and perhaps useful, but I don’t think many children will find them interesting or engaging. As a set, I can see them on the school councillor’s shelf, pulled out and given to students who know they will be reading a “helpful” book, restating simply the party line vis-à-vis social interactions, rather than presenting a more meaningful perspective on children’s realities.

Destination Human (2013), by K.L. Denman

Denman - Human…or better yet: Destination Human; or, The Death of a Mosquito. What fun! Rather corny, but fun for all that. Welkin is a Universal: a highly developed life-form that is nonetheless schooled in a fashion similar to readers in our world. Its assignment: to infiltrate a human host on Earth as part of its bioethics class—which it has already failed a number of times. It’s obviously not very good at this. Welkin is a stereotypic teen: uninterested in school and tuned out when its teacher describes the assignment. As a result, Welkin’s entrance into his teen host (high school society has been deemed an excellent site for exploration of the human race) is compromised and it is unable to completely control its host. Its negotiations with Chloe are the source of humour in the novel; their two voices, while different, both scream “teen attitude.”

The plot is relatively non-existent; the focus is on Welkin’s learning about human (teen) society, and comparing it to the textbook information it has been given about the human race. What captures our attention, and makes us think there might be something a little deeper in the novel, is a teeny moment on page 10. Welkin inadvertently enters a mosquito and, through its sting, enters Chloe’s body: but “All bodies occupied by Universals die when we depart. So as I leave the mosquito behind, its body dies. And just like that, I am inside the human.” Chloe remains oblivious to this aspect of their relationship, but readers remain conscious the entire time that the growing mutual respect between host and parasite is not destined to end well.

Despite this possibility of trauma, the tone of the novels never really slips out of the lightheartedness brought about by the interplay of the two narrative voices. The somewhat contrived denouement is thus in keeping with some of the other groan-worthy moments in the book—and by that I mean those groans that escape when something is so corny as to be funny, like when a pun is both so obvious and so unexpected that we hide our faces in our hands—as we groan—for missing it. This was my response to Destination Human; I am not sure it is what the author intended, but I hope so. As a simple, chuckle-worthy story that nonetheless says something about what it is to be a friend, Destination Human succeeds admirably.

Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.