Sophie Trophy (2019), by Eileen Holland

7 July 2019

Holland - Sophie TrophyIllustrated by Brooke Kerrigan

As soon as her schoolday begins, Sophie’s rich and mercurial imagination lands her in an ever-deepening quagmire of trouble, and her escapades keep us riveted to the page. We can see the images in her head as she imagines them; we can feel the doubts and insecurities of an eight-year-old in her thoughts and the choices she makes. As an adult reader, I spent most of the book seeing those choices simultaneously through Sophie’s eyes and those of the adults around her. This double-vision gave me pause: is this what’s possibly going on inside the head of a child behaving in bizarre and seemingly random ways? Eileen Holland has me convinced that it is.

But before I continue with how that is so, I’d like to make an unconnected observation about the title.

Sophie’s best friend Brayden tells her “Someone should give you a trophy, Sophie, for the goofiest ideas ever.” Quite the compliment. But another little urchin in the class taunts: “Sophie Trophy! That’s what I’m going to call you from now on!” (2). The adult in me says: Still a compliment, actually, young dude. But of course that is not how kids take these things. His taunting irks the protagonists but isn’t the major focus of the story, and in the end Sophie calls him on it:

“Stop calling me that, Jordy.”
“Why? It’s funny.”
“Not if you say it to be mean.”

Simple. To the point. Still something a child would say. It really brings home the important message that “it’s only funny if it’s funny to everyone.” A very small part of the narrative, yet it resonates so strongly…

But back to the actual story.

It all begins when Jordy lets Bradley’s pet spider out of its jar and the teacher freaks out. Arachnophobia is no joke, and the children recognize it as a problem that they have upset their beloved teacher. Sophie’s “spider-scientist face” (5) is replaced by a “worried-girl look” (8), but the damage has been done. The plot flows from here like a rube-goldberg device; each of Sophie’s responses understandably misinterpreted by her teach and principal, because a “butterfly-tummy squiggly” Sophie is (again, understandably) not the most articulate. It all works out in the end, and we are left with a “happy-heart feeling” (88).

Holland’s compound adjectives really help us feel like we are inside Sophie’s head, and the vivid stories Sophie makes up about her world are both scattered and intensely detailed. She sees Africa through the lens of a pencil hole drilled through an eraser, “like using Dad’s special camera” (40). The spring in the click-pen she dismantles becomes a pogo-stick, as she imagines herself “hopping through the schoolyard. Sproing! Sproing! Sproing!

Kids would stop playing soccer. They’d come to see her from every corner of the playground. “There goes Sophie,” they’d say, “she saved Miss Ruby from a spider.” (48)

Invariably, the real world comes crashing back in. The movement from imagination to reality is like a joyously bubbling stream of consciousness, and despite the problems Sophie’s distractedness causes, we are left in no doubt that there’s nothing wrong with being the way she is.

The Summoning: The Darkest Powers #1 (2008), by Kelley Armstrong

4 April 2019

I’ve promised to fill in a questionnaire about Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning for a friend’s research project, so I set myself to reread the series (the questionnaire rather requires it). I remembered reviewing The Reckoning (2010) when it came out, and being gratifyingly surprised at how much I enjoyed the series, but I guess time had mellowed my recollections. Picking up The Summoning for a second time, I was again immediately sucked in to the powerful world of Chloe and her friends. Fortunately, I have a horrible memory for plot (hence the need to reread), so it was (mostly) all new the second time around. But equally enthralling. I read it through in one sitting, only rising for a Skype meeting in the afternoon and to make dinner in the evening. Almost reneged on that responsibility, actually.

All that I said about The Reckoning remains true (and please read it so I don’t have to repeat myself). Chloe and her friends and associates are very realistically drawn—for teens who have paranormal abilities—and their struggles translate easily into the lives of less “special” teens in the general North American population (even better, I would hazard to guess, for otherly-“special” teens in the general North American population).

We meet Chloe as a young child afraid to go down into the basement: not an unusual childhood fear. Chloe, though, is afraid because there really are ghosts, and they speak to her. Sometimes they are benign, but sometimes they are evil and malicious. Her trauma causes her parents to move, and she settles into a normal life. We meet her again as a teen on the cusp of adolescence. Her repressed memories come back as she crosses over that cusp (gets her period) and the ghost of a dead custodian at her school reaches out to her. Things go downhill from there, and Chloe ends up in a group home for a two-week diagnostic and therapeutic visit. She finds herself in a classic situation of emotional and psychological tension: is she crazy, schizophrenic, as she is told? Are the other teens crazy? Why are they here, and is she in danger from them? Who can she trust? By the end of the book, she still hasn’t answered that last question, although the answers to the first two have become clearer. She is not crazy: she is a necromancer; the ghosts cannot actually hurt her, despite her fear. This is a powerful realization, but not sufficient to keep her safe. She learns the stories of some of the other teens, but not all. And she really doesn’t know who to trust. And she gets it wrong.

Cue the end of the book.

This would be troubling if the second novel in the series (yes, thankfully, series, not trilogy, as stated on the cover of The Reckoning) were not available, but at this point, one can just read on (if Book #2, The Awakening (2010), weren’t out of the library as usual even now). And this time around, I will be able to carry on immediately reading the second series, Darkness Rising: The Gathering (2012), The Calling (2013), and The Rising (2014). In rereading my own earlier review I note that The Reckoning leaves the teens set up to take on the world as they know it. I can’t wait to see how that goes for them.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

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.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

Shatterproof (2016), by Jocelyn Shipley

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.

Shatterproof (2016)

shipley-shatterproofThe Orca Currents series aims to provide high-interest books with a simpler reading level to teens. The Currents books 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). Shatterproof falls into this last category.

When Nate moves with his paraplegic mother from North Vancouver to Vancouver Island, he feels like he has been sent to the edges of civilization, away from all that matters to him, including his best friend, “Lug.” Part of the move was explicitly to remove him from Lug’s negative influence, and teen readers will all understand Nate’s motivation in lying to his mother and taking the ferry back to the mainland “for one short day” (3). When two girls at the mall mistake Nate for a popular TV star, and Lug capitalizes on their mistake, Nate feels compelled to go along with the lies, despite his qualms. The situation spirals down from there. Lug’s growing dishonesty and lack of social conscience force Nate to stand up for what he knows to be right, strengthened by his attraction for Spring, one of the girls they have signed up for fake casting calls. Spring, however, is not inclined to forgive him. Nate sets out to set things right, first severing all ties with Lug and neutralizing Lug’s criminal intents; then scripting his confession to his mother and reaching out to Spring, hoping she will give him another chance. Through these honest attempts to make amends, he is given hope but no panacea: if he wants Spring’s friendship, or more, he will have to prove himself all over, starting from behind.