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.

Advertisements

The Blackthorne Key (2015), by Kevin Sands

I was discussing Kevin Sand’s The Blackthorne Key, which won the John Spray Mystery Award for 2016, with a friend, who thought that it was a little bit predictable. No (she thought a bit about it)… it was just that perhaps the protagonist, Christopher, should have figured things out more quickly, given his purported intelligence. I had to ponder why I didn’t have this same criticism, because when she pointed out some examples, her position made sense. But I didn’t have that response: I was so immersed in the novel, so convinced by the characters and intrigued by the plot, that no criticisms had the space to rear their ugly heads. In teaching rhetoric, I tell my students: “If as an author you make a mistake, and your reader notices, you will have lost them. So don’t make a mistake.” As far as I could tell as I read The Blackthorne Key, Kevin Sands makes no mistakes: I was enthralled from start to finish.

Sands really does understand his setting. Christopher, his friend Tom, even his master Benedict Blackthorne and the other apothecaries, do not sport modern sensibilities lurking beneath the narrative trappings of the seventeenth century; their characters are, rather, consistent with a world in which the boundaries between science and faith and magic are blurred. Christopher, for all his innate intelligence, is still a young boy at the same time as he approaches manhood: his youthful exuberance hatches the (illegal but oh-so-much-fun) plan to build a cannon; his intelligence gives him the means to do so; his lack of experience results in his blowing up the stuffed bear in his master’s apothecary shop. By the end of the novel, though, as he is thrust into the adult world, he has gained a maturity far beyond either his earlier self or the middle-school readers the novel is aimed at.

In the case of the bear, as throughout the novel, Sands creates a balance between authenticity and reality: Christopher is not beaten for his exploits, but we are let know in no uncertain terms that others in his position would have been. Benedict Blackthorne is presented as a reasonable, intelligent master, who values Christopher’s sharp mind, even as he strictly controls his activities. As the novel progresses, though, and Christopher and Tom are pulled into the shady dealings of the apothecaries’ guild, we—as much as they—are uncertain where Blackthorne’s loyalties really lie. The plot is sufficiently complicated, the events sufficiently believable within Sands’s carefully constructed temporal and social setting; questions the reader might have about Christopher’s world are all ultimately answered, and we are left satisfied.

What really engaged me first as a reader, though, is Sands’s sense of humour, slightly sarcastic narrative voice, and clever word play. Christopher narrates the story with language that melds a sense of the period (1665) with a typically boyish irreverence and delight in really bad ideas. When Tom comments that “people can’t just build cannons,” Christopher responds: “But that’s where cannons come from: People build them. You think God sends cannons down from heaven?” And he later laments, “I wished God’s warnings would be a little clearer. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for the Almighty to write STOP STEALING STICKY BUNS in the clouds or something.”

Throughout the novel, I grew more and more fond of Christopher; as he gains knowledge and maturity, he loses nothing of his boyish charm. The Blackthorne Key introduces us to Christopher; his story continues in The Blackthorne Key: The Mark of the Plague. Happily, though, The Blackthorne Key is completely self-contained; we do not need to read the second book, but I, for one, certainly will.

A Year of Borrowed Men (2015), by Michelle Barker

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.

A Year of Borrowed Men was deservedly short-listed for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

A Year of Borrowed Men

Illustrated by Renné Benoit.

Barker - Borrowed MenA Year of Borrowed Men tells a story from World War Two that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but is nonetheless a moving part of the history of the German-Canadian community. The author writes from her mother Gerta’s recollections, bringing to life the engaging voice of the younger Gerta, whose family hosted three French prisoners-of-war on their German farm in 1944.

World War Two from the German perspective remains somewhat problematic: how do we reconcile decades of erroneous equation of “German” with evil, with the real experiences of many Germans during the war? While the topic is dealt with effectively in some textsT– Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (1985), Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), among othersT– it will take so many more stories for truth to overcome the stereotypes. A Year of Borrowed Men contributes positively and significantly to our understanding of the compassion of some of the German populace, placed themselves in an almost untenable psychological and ideological situation.

Gerta’s father was “borrowed” by the German army, and in his place the government sent three French prisonersT– Gabriel, Fermaine, and AlbertT– to work the land. Gerta’s innocent narrative perspective ensures that the dark reality of Germany’s forced labour policy is not brought out. With the egalitarianism of young children, Gerta cannot understand why the three must live with the animals, and eat in the “pig’s kitchen,” where the slops were prepared. That was the rule though: these men were prisoners and were to be treated as such. Inviting them in to dinner one night almost sent Gerta’s mother to prison herself, yet the family could not deny their fundamental humanity. Despite regulations, in the face of threats, Gerta and her mother find little ways of making the Frenchmen’s lives more tolerable: extra butter on their bread, catalogues to cut into elicit decorations at Christmas, sneaking treats for them to eat. The men reciprocated with affection for their little German freunde: “I couldn’t keep the borrowed men here,” Gerta observes at the end of the war, “but we were friends– and I could keep that forever.” The story is made more powerful by the fact that Gerta did indeed keep that friendship alive: enough that her daughter has retold their story for her grandchildren’s generation to learn.

The Secrets series (2015), published by Orca Books, Victoria, BC

Secrets seriesIn 2012, Orca Publishers released Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to fulfill in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. Now, in 2015, Orca has released Secrets, a parallel series with female protagonists.

The foundation of this series is the destruction of an orphanage by (we assume) accidental fire. Set in 1964, at a time when national regulations governing child welfare were in flux, the series follows the lives of the seven oldest girls in the orphanage. At eighteen, the girls would have been sent out on their own; the fire merely precipitates their setting out into the world. Each of the self-proclaimed “sisters” is given $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often-vague information tenuously linking their present to their pasts, providing indeterminate paths for them to take towards their futures.

While I really enjoyed the majority of the Secrets novels, the overall premise for the series disturbs me just that little bit. Why is it that the cousins in the Sevens series are sent out into the world on challenging adventures that turn help them grow into independent adulthood, the girls’ stories follow a far more limiting path. To begin with, Sevens is contemporary, while Secrets is set in 1964, a time when—despite second-wave feminism—womanhood was still circumscribed by relatively unyielding patriarchal norms. Miss Webster, Home Economics teacher at the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls, teaches the girls that they “should be happy learning to sew for their future husbands and children … that marriage was a woman’s highest calling” (33). That readers are supposed to recognize this as a social construct to be battled does not mitigate sufficiently against the subtle yet pervasive attitudes that feminists have worked so hard to overcome between the 1964 setting and the 2015 publication of these novels. And sadly, the novels as a whole do quite a good job at recreating mid-1960s social mores. Each of the girls sets out on an adventure, granted, but not to solve a mystery surrounding their grandfather’s past (as in Sevens) but rather to resituate themselves within the safety—both personal and societal—of the family unit. Where the male protagonists’ anxieties play out in the context of a larger ideological world they will have to navigate, the female protagonists’ challenges are constrained by the social and familial.

That being said, a number of books in the series do address interesting historical events or situations. While Eric Walter’s Innocent presents little more than a glimpse into the life of a domestic servant in 1964, caught up in a murder mystery including the romancing of Betty by the local police officer, and Vicki Grant’s Small Bones does the same for life in one of the summer resort towns that dot Ontario’s lake shores, the other novels have far more historical significance. Marthe Jocelyn’s A Big Dose of Lucky presents a fictional look at the early history of artificial insemination research; Norah McClintock’s My Life Before Me looks at race relations in Indiana (one of the early free states) at the time of the murder of three civil rights’ workers in Mississippi; Kathy Kacer’s Stones on a Grave takes readers to what is left of Föhrenwald, Germany, seven years after the Allied Displaced Persons Camp there was closed in 1957; Kelley Armstrong’s An Unquiet Past (perhaps my favourite) looks at early, illicit experimentation in sleep deprivation therapy; and Teresa Toten’s Shattered Glass delves into the vibrant Toronto musical community centred on Gerrard Street in the 1940s and Yorkville in the 1960s. It is these later books, too, that present the strongest female protagonists: Tess, in An Unquiet Past ends up attending McGill university in Montreal (albeit with her Métis boyfriend in tow), and Sara, in Stones on a Grave, takes the brave step of staying in Germany (albeit partially because of young Peter, who helps her on her quest). The only protagonist who doesn’t end up in a romantic relationship at the conclusion of her novel is Cady, in My Life Before Me, who follows in the footsteps of Nellie Bly (why not Sara Jeannette Duncan, I ask myself, the Canadian Nellie Bly? but that is a different topic entirely) and researches what turns out to be her father’s 1948 murder. It is important to note, though, that Cady’s male counterpart in investigation is Daniel, the younger brother of the Black man wrongfully convicted of the murder. Within the context of 1964 Indiana, there would be no way that Cady and Daniel could establish a viable romantic relationship. The relationship between French-Canadian Tess and Métis Jackson in An Unquiet Past pushes the boundaries of believable; a fully interracial relationship in 1964 USA would unquestionably exceed them.

Despite my reservations, I am glad Orca has published this series: mostly, I think, for the valuable historical content that these last five books present. And a little bit because—the inappropriateness of perpetuating gendered narrative expectations aside—I do love a sweet romance. Mea culpa. Save yourselves and your daughters; it is too late for me…