Speechless (2015), by Jennifer Mook-Sang

I really struggled with this review. The book is so simple, so refreshing, even though it is dealing with what are, to an elementary school student, major issues. It was a delight to read; I hope that comes across sufficiently.

Speechless

mook-sang-speechless“Jelly”—Joe Alton Miles, or J.A.M.—has a problem. Well, Jelly has a collection of problems, but one in particular: stage fright. It wouldn’t be a big issue except for the school speech competition, with the amazing prize of a tablet computer with enough power for online gaming. Which brings up Jelly’s next problem: Victoria, a popular but sly and manipulative classmate.

As a character, Victoria might seem to be a bit of a stereotype, but sadly, her type is all too common in our schools. I’m pretty sure you all know her: the girl who demands adoration, the one weaker classmates strive to appease because, as Jelly’s friend Samantha affirms, “if you want any friends, you have to friends with Victoria.” (Sam, notably, feels no such compulsion: “Too much drama” (50).) Victoria is the student Jelly needs to beat to win that tablet, and Victoria excels at winning. She also plays nasty: spreading rumours about Jelly, faking injury when he pushes her slightly, making snide sotto voce comments at all his efforts. Everyone who has ever suffered under unjust adult discipline will feel Jelly’s pain: he’s smart, a good kid trying to help others, and yet the adults are duped by Victoria’s manipulations.

Supported by his developing friendship with Parker’s twin sister, Sam, Jelly navigates the social quagmire of elementary school. They manage to diffuse the effect of Victoria’s rumours, but Jelly still flounders about in a tangle of playground politics. This is perhaps what I liked best about Speechless: Jennifer Mook-Sang really gives us a sense of how daunting life can be to an eleven-year-old boy. There is a simplicity to Jelly’s thought processes that belies the importance of the complex life lessons he is learning. Standing up to bullies, both physically and intellectually; missing sleep to help others because he promised; figuring out ways to succeed in spite of his insecurities and fear: all these are big life lessons, but Speechless is in no way heavy-handed. Jelly’s cheeky narrative voice and personality, at once both clueless and self-reflective, make us both smile at his youth and cheer his growing maturity.

Young Man With Camera (2015), by Emil Sher

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 21.3.

Young Man With Camera was short-listed for the 2016 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award.

Young Man With Camera

Sher - Camera

As hard as he tries not to, T–  stands out from his classmates. As a child, an accident resulted in extensive burn marks to his face and neck; since then, he has been bullied mercilessly by Ryan and his group of followers, whom T–  and his friend Sean label “Joined at the Hip.” T–’s parents had tried all sorts of activities to help T–, but the one that stuck was photography. He sees the world through his camera lens, finding beauty in small details that others see as unimportant, or in people whom others see as useless. This is how T– meets Lucy, a homeless woman with an interesting vision of her world. T–’s growing affection for the ostracized Lucy is complicated by the increasingly violent bullying of Ryan and his cronies, ultimately leading to a horrific incident that changes T–’s life forever.

It is hard to know how to approach Young Man With Camera, for a number of reasons. For one, the narrative voice is inconsistent. T–  speaks in metaphor, with a poetic vision of his world that plays with language and image in the way a highly intelligent young adult might; at the same time, though, 13-year-old T–  does not know what irony or behoove mean, and has to ask the teacher he idolizes, Ms. Karamath.

Ms. Karamath introduces him to the work of famous photographer Diane Arbus, whose pictures influence his vision. This connection between the readers’ world and the narrative world is a strength; the development of T–’s artistic ability alongside the reader’s developing understanding of T–  as a person is very effectively executed and almost sufficiently mitigates other problems in characterization.

When T– has photographic evidence of Joined at the Hip’s murderous attack on Lucy, he considers taking the photos to Ms. Karamath, the only adult he trusts. Ultimately, for reasons that are explicit but not convincing, he does not do so, and this is another issue I have with the story. Regardless of the depth of fear he has of Joined at the Hip—T– they poisoned Sean’s dog, Watson, and threatened worse to Sean—is it realistic that T–  would tell no one? Granted, the adults in his life have not been entirely supportive, but again, this is an issue. All the adults we meet, including T–’s mother and father, believe Ryan’s lies and consider (what they interpret as) T–’s criminally anti-social behaviour to be an understandable result of his childhood injury. No one ever thinks to address the issues T–  actually might have. If they are aware of the relationship between his accident and his (presumed) behaviour, why then is there no indication of interventions on his behalf? That question aside, all of his actions could also be interpreted in less damning ways. The notion of T–  having a persecution complex, projecting his abuse at the hands of Joined at the Hip onto others around him, I could understand as a narrative device, but that doesn’t appear to be what is going on. Despite his use of language, T–’s tale is not a metaphor: to have the entire adult world—even ultimately Ms. Karamath—unable to see what is going on, to the extent that T– ends up serving a seven-month incarceration, seems problematically unrealistic.

The intensity of Ryan’s persecution I can accept, as it is presented as excessive even for a typical bullying situation, but when Ryan is found guilty of assault on a member of his own gang, there is no reassessment of T–’s situation at all. Having years of experience dealing with the Canadian school system, including special needs assessments and psycho-educational evaluations, I find it very hard to believe in T–’s journey, in the choices he makes, or the responses of those around him.

Red Zone Rivals (2014), by Eric Howling

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 20.2.

Howling - Red ZoneI don’t know much about football, but the opening scene of Eric Howling’s Red Zone Rivals seems to carry the excitement fans—and players—must feel during tense moments in the game. It certainly engages the reader sufficiently to carry us through meeting Quinn Brown, who doesn’t start out with a very attractive attitude. His hubris loses him the affection of his girlfriend, Emma, and we can see that he has some learning to do both on and off the field. Fortunately, Howling craftily leads Quinn into and through situations that ring true; the lessons he learns are solid and in keeping with the psychological space a high-school football star might find himself in.

Slightly stereotypically, Quinn is a great quarterback, but a lousy math student. When he finally accepts his need for a tutor, he is assigned to Walker, a new student with a limp and a brilliant mind. Quinn had previously taunted Walker for his limp but, conforming to narrative expectations, learns the truth of Walker’s injury as they bond over their math books. When Quinn gets in trouble for throwing the first punch in defending Walker against bullying by his rival quarterback, Luke, we begin to see the changes that losing Emma and knowing Walker have set in motion. And we begin to really like Quinn.

It is not easy to accept punishment for an action you know to be morally right, but Quinn must: and he does so respectfully. His ability to accept the consequence of his action—even when it seems unfair—opens him to accept the guidance their new coach gives and the self-discipline demanded of Walker’s tutoring. The lessons he learns are part of what we all hope our children will learn in high school, and one of the reasons some parents encourage their children in team sports: the adage “there is no ‘i’ in team,” of course; but more than that, lesson in maturity, ethical principles, and honourable behaviour. Quinn is rewarded not only by his rekindled relationship with Emma, and a growing friendship with Walker, but by knowing himself to have grown in the ways that matter.

 

Millhouse (2014), by Natale Ghent

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 19.5.

Ghent-MillhouseMillhouse tells the story of a naked guinea pig, caught in a life he did not choose, unappreciated by those around him, teased for being a misfit. Millhouse used to have a warm and welcoming home with a celebrated actor, but after Sir Roderick’s death, he ended up in a dusty, dreary pet shop. He yearned to return to his old life, to satisfy his thespian aspirations, to be appreciated again. The premise seems promising to those who appreciate stories of anthropomorphized animals, and can sympathize with Millhouse’s situation. Millhouse is an interesting character, and his over-dramatizing of his life is highly entertaining and appropriate to his self-conception as an actor. He is certainly the strongest character in the story; the other characters (even the assortment of animals in the shop) are similarly hyperbolic, and thus overtly stereotypic. There are the other, beautiful guinea pigs who deride Millhouse for his appearance, the crafty ferret who considers him (but not apparently the other animals) as a potential meal, the constantly reproduced baby wild mice who come to listen to Millhouse perform Shakespeare. The usual antics occur, with the escape-artist ferret attacking Millhouse, with Millhouse becoming depressed by the insinuation that the is intended only for scientific experiments, by Millhouse’s attempted escape to see Sir Peter Ustinov perform, and the final heart-warming conclusion that finally places him is a home. One problem I see is that Millhouse (like the ferret, but not the other animals) can easily escape his cage, yet doesn’t think to leave until the end. Another troubling element is that Millhouse is the only character with a name, rather like Franklin in the children’s cartoon (equally problematic in terms of children’s ability to identify with any of the supporting cast). Overall, the characters and story seem to limp along, either predictably or irrelevantly.

By far the best aspect of Millhouse is the author’s own illustrations, which in and of themselves justify the creation of a story to accompany them. Millhouse’s dramatic expressions, the ferret’s malicious sneers, the wild mouse Sargent’s military nobility, the adorable mice babies… Perhaps Natale Ghent’s unquestionable artistic ability would be better used in producing graphic novels for young readers; in Millhouse, she has created an almost-sufficient story in just the illustrations.