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.

When Morning Comes (2016), by Arushi Raina

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.

Having been a juror for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People for the past two years (it is a two-year appointment), I have to say that When Morning Comes stands a very good chance of being the winner for 2017. That cannot, of course, be reflected in my review for Resource Links, but I wanted to add that opinion to my appreciation of Raina’s excellent novel.

When Morning Comes (2016)

raina-when-morning-comesI am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was

I am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was Cape Town (2012), by Brenda Hammond; then Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters; and now When Morning Comes, by Arushi Raina. They just keep getting better. Raina’s complex characterization and intricate plot kept me enthralled from my first meeting of Zanele and Jack and Meena through to the devastatingly inevitable conclusion. Raina does not capitulate to simplistic narrative expectations of some current YA genres, wherein the teen protagonists rise above the socio-political powers against which they struggle and succeed; this is perhaps because the novel is based on historical events, but it is nonetheless admirably handled. Raina’s characters are young: inexperienced yet passionate, afraid yet determined. They behave immaturely under pressure. They make mistakes. They—and more importantly those around them—suffer for those mistakes. And so they learn, but that learning sometimes comes too late. The bravery of some characters seems at times almost excessive, but it is always believable.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1976. We meet Zanele as she and her friends attempt to bomb a power station. The attempt fails; two of her friends are arrested; Zanele escapes. Theirs is but a small act of terrorism aimed at helping to overthrow the apartheid government. As the novel progresses, Zanele’s life becomes inextricably entwined with that of Jack, a naïve white boy who is entranced by Zanele; Meena, daughter of a South Asian shopkeeper who is being extorted by a local gang; and Thabo, one of the gang members and Zanele’s childhood friend. The intricate connections Raina constructs in her narrative all lead inexorably toward the tragedy that erupted on June 16th, 1976. The Soweto Uprising is infamous in South African history for the police brutality used against the 15,000 students in the protest that quickly became a riot. Raina’s novel traces the path from the government imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, through the Soweto high school students’ growing dissatisfaction, to their cohesive plan of action. The short “historical intro”—significantly at the back of the novel—informs the reader of the real historical moment, but the novel itself is a far stronger exposition of the students’ anger and power than any historical commentary could be.

When Santa Was a Baby (2015), by Linda Bailey

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 21.1.

Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout.

When Santa Was A Baby

Bailey - Santa BabyThis 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 xxx

The first thing that strikes one about When Satan Was a Baby is Geneviève Goudbout’s clever artistic style, which replicates the wrapping paper and illustration of Christmases in the 1960s and 1970s. The muted autumnal pastel drawings, the pencil-crayon poinsettias against the moss-green background, the red button noses and shiny apple cheeks of the characters: all these speak of a heartwarming nostalgia that is reinforced by the story.

Linda Bailey’s Santa is a normal little boy… except for his booking baby voice, and maybe his love of red over every other colour, and perhaps his propensity for re-wrapping his birthday presents… Things begin to become clearer to the reader when he harnesses his hamsters to a matchbox to pull around the house. Part of the joy for the young reader will be that Santa’s parents still haven’t figured it out. “Extraordinary!” his father proclaims; “He’s so creative!” coos his mother. “Don’t they get it?!” the young reader will ask in an exasperated, or perhaps superior, voice.

Bailey’s humour is giggle-inducing and sustained throughout the story; allusions to perhaps the most famous Santa poem—“A Visit from St. Nicholas”—are subtle and effective. The story is all wrapped up neatly in the end, when Santa’s parents comment, with a revisionist view of his youth, “That’s what we always thought he’d do … We knew it all the time.” And Santa replies “HO HO HO!”

Uncertain Solider (2015), by Karen Bass

3 April 2016

Bass - SoldierWhen I was young, I saw the 1978 movie version of Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973). Until then, I hadn’t thought about what “our side” did with prisoners of war. It was more obvious with Allied prisoners in the European or Asian theatre: the prisoners were held there, where the battles were being waged. (Hogan’s Heroes, the comic TV series that ran from 1965 to 1971, was also a popular entertainment of my youth.) Less traumatic than the American Summer of My German Soldier, Uncertain Soldier tells the story of Erich Hofmeyer, a German prisoner of war held in Alberta in the winter of 1943-44.

The story begins, though, in the voice of young Max Schmidt, a Canadian lad born of German parents, who is persecuted for his heritage and understandably struggles with his identity as a result. His father is almost violently insistent that Max remain proud of and stand up for himself and his German heritage. What Max is subjected to is impossible to stand against, though: a systematic, targetted bullying that readers will recognize as being a pervasive response to otherness, not just the product of war-time Canadian prejudice. When the bullying becomes life threatening, Max runs away. Max’s flight is the impetus for an act of bravery by Erich on both a physical and an emotional level, a distillation of the uncertainty that has been tearing at Erich throughout the novel.

Erich’s uncertainty regarding his conflicted national and cultural identities gives rise to the novel’s title. While Max’s struggle is the weft of the fabric of Bass’s narrative, Erich’s is the warp. Max is persecuted by his classmates; Erich’s very life is threatened by his complex position as a German national with British relatives, who speaks English perfectly and who silently rejects Hitler’s insistence on the superiority of the Aryan “race.” In the prison camp outside of Lethbridge where Erich is initially held, the Nazi party members rule as strongly as within the German army. Beaten close to death by those in power, Erich is granted a transfer to a work camp for prisoners deemed to be less of an ideological threat. Here, too, though, the dynamics among the prisoners is infused with mistrust of each other and of the Canadians the men work with. Some of the Canadians are generous and kind; others are resentful; and at least one person is filled with a hatred that leads to murderous intent. As both linguistic and cultural interpreter between the German prisoners and their English-speaking boss and fellow lumberjacks, Erich sees both honour and mistrust on both sides, and his honest, empathetic perspective makes him an ideal negotiator but also puts him in an almost untenable situation.

Uncertain Soldier is a solid, intelligent interpretation of the politics of the time and the effect of opinion on morale. Through the richness of its characters, the novel gives voice to a gamut of attitudes, revealing the complexity of life during the 1940s far more thoroughly and effectively than what is taught in history classes. In contrast to the Canadian Sam’s violent insistence that “a few firing squads last war would’ve fixed it,” Erich’s British grandfather astutely notes that “more mercy by the Great War’s victors might have prevented the fight that loomed” (103). The parallel with history is made more powerful by its subtlety; most readers will not hear Sam’s vehemence as an echo of French military politician Ferdinand Foch, who noted at the time that the Treaty of Versailles was “not peace [but] an Armistice for twenty years,” asking for harsher restrictions to be place on the defeated Germany. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Erich’s grandfather’s position is reminiscent of John Maynard Keynes’s insistence that the conditions were too harsh, that the Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace,” a peace ensured by the complete annihilation of the vanquished, such as Rome’s conquering of Carthage. Historians still debate the political “what ifs” of the first half of the twentieth century, and this uncertainty, manifested at all levels of society, is brilliantly woven into the fabric of Bass’s text.