Many years ago, I supervised Dr. Rob Bittner as an undergraduate in his exploration of the intersection of Christianity with homosexuality in young adult novels. Back then, there were so few such novels published that it has been fascinating to watch Rob’s career develop along side a growing corpus of LGBTQ fiction for young readers. The following is his simple description of M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie.
“This novel follows a short time in the life of Parr, whose sister, Evie, is a lesbian. At first, Parr [wants to support Evie], because he wants Evie to stay and take care of the farm so he won’t have to. As soon he finds out she has no plans to stay on the farm, in a situation complicated by other issues, he and another young man hang up a derogatory sign in the town square. These events lead to the escape of Evie from the town with Patsy Duff, her lover. This story is not ultimately about explorations of sexuality and literature so much as it is about the suffering caused by being different. There are some tender moments to keep the plot from becoming melodramatic, however, and so, in the end, there is some reconciliation within the family. … The treatment of sexuality as something negative that leads to the need for escape is [a strong] example of how homosexuality is treated for the most part prior to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”
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)
The 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.
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
These 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.
…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.