That Boy Red (2011), by Rachna Gilmore

This review was first published in BookBird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 51.1 (2013): 66.

Gilmour-RedThat Boy Red

Anne of Green Gables for boys” is how many people would describe Rachna Gilmore’s latest novel, and to some extent they would be right. That Boy Red is an engaging, nostalgic depiction of rural life in 1930s Prince Edward Island, with a red-headed protagonist: but there the similarities end. “Red” is not an orphan in search of a “kindred spirit” but a mischievous young boy, one of five siblings. One of the early scenes—when Red and his brother play war with—and ruin—an heirloom lock of their grandmother’s hair, reminds me far more of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy (1933). When Wilder’s Almanzo ruins his mother’s best parlor wallpaper by throwing a blacking-brush at his sister, Eliza Jane, she patches the wallpaper to prevent their parents discovering the crime. It is this solidarity between siblings—even amidst rivalries and conflict—that resonates so strongly in That Boy Red and renders it a marvelous portrayal of family dynamics at a time when families had to pull together in order to survive.

The episodic nature of That Boy Red works very well with its target audience of 8-12 year olds. After the incident with the lock of Granny’s hair, Red continues to revel in childish pranks: he tricks his younger sister, who ends up getting lost; he interferes in his older sister’s romance; and he ends up taking refuge from a storm in the local bully’s outhouse. But when his father’s hand is seriously injured, Red demonstrates a level of maturity previously unseen by taking charge and finishing a carpentry contract in order to maintain his father’s reputation for high-quality, conscientious work. In the final scene, Red helps a grounded airplane pilot repair his plane, earning himself a ride. The reader will glory in what Red realizes, flying high, as he sees how all the parts of his world connect: having strong roots gives him the freedom to grow.

Betsy Wickwire’s Dirty Secret (2010), by Vicki Grant

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 17.1.

Betsy Wickwire’s Dirty Secret

I knew Betsy Wickwire.  She was at least three of my highschool friends.  I myself was Dolores Morris, minus the theft.  I knew Murdock, too; he was my brother’s best friend.  And everyone knows a number of Carlys and Nicks; they plague the teenaged world.
Young adult readers of all ages, and I believe both genders, will love this novel.  Vicky Grant’s characters are completely believable; her plot is interesting and well structured; the emotional aspects of Becky’s life are firmly within the realm of teenage possibility. Having teen readers able to both identify with the characters and recognize the validity of the plot is important, too, because Grant is doing more with this novel than just exploring teen relationships and life.
Betsy is clinically depressed after finding her best friend and boyfriend kissing.  Her complete breakdown at this event is justified in the narrative, and will ring true to teen readers.  What is essential is that her self-guided recovery is equally believable. Grant has done an excellent job of showing the painfully slow road to recovery that Betsy takes, peppering the serious look at a troubled young girl with moments of fun and humour that are a part of teen life. Through this all, we have Betsy’s self-reflective narrative reminding us of the relationship between her internalized self-conception and her narrative world—and thus, the reader will extrapolate, the real world outside the text.
The plot breaks down a bit towards the end, with Betsy’s refusal to force Dolores to pay for her own mistakes; and the last few pages left me wondering, really, where the characters ended up in relation to one another.  There is a synopsis, but it is not tied sufficiently to the preceding narrative to satisfy a desire to envision the characters’ futures.  But with this very small caveat, I must say that I could not put Besty Wickwire’s Dirty Secret down.  As soon as it is released, I will run out and purchase copies for my young teen daughter and all her friends.

Speak (1999), by Laurie Halse Anderson

A powerful illustration of the trauma experienced by a young rape victim, and the necessity for the adults in our world to be more aware and proactive in supporting teens at risk or in need.  The silencing of the protagonist, Mel, is universal: the adults around her can not hear what she cannot say; her peers actively turn their backs on her, refuse to listen, even if she should speak. Which she doesn’t. Can’t. Not even completely to herself, to the readers, to whom her silence speaks volumes.

Through Anderson’s superior narrative craft, we are immersed in Melinda’s world: her silence, her guilt, her depression.  Only one adult—her art teacher—can see that despite her silence she has something to say, and what that might be worries him.  But as a male teacher, with problems of his own, his hands are tied, despite his recognizing that Mel is “a good kid”: “I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it” (123). Once she finally finds her voice, it is he to whom she can finally say “Let me tell you about it” (198).

While the characterization, the plot, and the tone of Anderson’s novel are exceptional, I think it is the language underlying the narrative that gives it such power. The images Anderson chooses all subtly suggest associations with sound, with speech, even when speech or silence is not the topic at hand: “I have never heard a more eloquent silence” (57), “Words are hard work” (85), “This is an uglynasty Momside. … Tough love. Sour sugar. Barbed velvet. Silent talk” (88), “he slices the canvas with my chisel, … a long, ripping sound that makes the entire class gasp” (92), “Tiny brow birds sing above me. No one knows how they got in, but they live in the mall and sing pretty” (99), “The cafeteria is a giant sound stage” (104).  So subtle are her examples that they are hard to distill, but a sense of sound, and of silence, resonates through the novel, enhancing our vicarious experience of Mel’s loneliness and isolation.

Ultimately, Mel finds her strength, but her journey is not trivialized, nor is her healing easy or complete.  Teenaged readers will believe fully in the reality of Mel’s situation, which might give those who need it the will to find the strength in themselves.