The Runaways (1997), by Kristin Butcher

It was surprisingly nostalgic to read Kristin Butcher’s The Runaways. The feeling grew on me slowly, undefined until a scene in the later part of the story when Nick, the protagonist, is trying to learn more about a favourite childhood author. Nick goes to the library, where he first checks newspaper reports, and then is pointed by the librarian to Who’s Who. It was at this point that I was compelled to check the publication date: 1997, when the Internet was in its infancy and not every middle-school student had a cell phone. The pre-digital narrative was refreshing, especially given Nick’s interest in investigative journalism, yet it caused me to wonder how middle-school readers today would respond to the story. Is this now a period piece? I’m hoping that young readers will not be put off by the unfamiliarity of earlier research techniques, because the story itself carries a message that is as strong and pertinent today as it was in 1997.

The scene opens on Nick running blindly, flat-out, escaping from a situation he finds unbearably painful: his mother and despised step-father are having a baby. Nick ends up spending the night in an abandoned house on the top of a hill over-looking his town. There, in the morning, he is found by Luther, a homeless man well-known in the community, whose “home” he has invaded. When the police come looking, Nick recognizes Luther’s need not to be found, and says nothing about their meeting. But the seeds of have been sown, and what begins as a curiosity about Luther develops into a more serious social interest in the lives of the homeless. Nick takes on the subject as a school research project and with the help of Cole, his step-father, investigates the real lives of people on the streets.

Cole is a journalist for the Andersonville newspaper and becomes Nick’s ally against maternal concerns about investigating the rougher side of town. Their shared interest gives Cole a platform upon which to build a meaningful relationship with his new step-son, and through their shared adventures, Nick begins to both understand and appreciate Cole’s new role in his life. In contrast to Cole’s active overtures towards Nick, Luther works to maintain an emotional distance, but his reticence runs up against Nick’s insatiable curiosity, tempered though it is by respect for Luther’s obvious intelligence.

The Runaways is very much about taking the time to really think about other people’s lives; it is about developing empathy, not only for people who are obviously “other” (Luther and the homeless community) but also for those closer to us, whose strengths we might not see clearly.

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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.

Tinfoil Sky (2012), by Cyndi Sand-Eveland

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 17.3.

Tinfoil Sky

When I read the back cover of Cyndi Sand-Eveland’s Tinfoil Sky, I thought to myself “Oh dear, another story about a homeless child and parental neglect.”  It seems that since Jean Little’s fabulous Willow and Twig (2000), there has been an overabundance of novels for young readers that begin with worst-case scenarios, and too often the resolution is neither believable nor empowering.  And then I read on.

Tinfoil Sky succeeds where so many other novels have not.  It is neither maudlin nor overly traumatic. The characters are completely believable in the effective integration of both positive and negative characteristics, as well as their ability to change.

The scene opens on 12-year-old Mel and her mother running from the mother’s abusive boyfriend.  Mel’s one regret is that in their haste she has left her prized possessions—a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, and her journal—behind.  She is sure that Craig will find them and read what she has written about him… Their life goes from bad to worse when Mel’s grandmother refuses to let her daughter into the apartment, and they end up on the street. Through not-unexpected mechanisms, Mel is eventually placed in her crotchety grandmother’s care while her mother serves out a short jail term.  But this is just the set-up: the real story is how Mel copes with a grandmother she is sure hates her, conflicted emotions regarding her mother, and a burning need to discover her past in order to determine who she is in the present.  The adults who help Mel on her journey share a believable combination of distance and involvement.  There is no white knight who takes over and solves all Mel’s problems.  Perhaps her landing a 2-hour per week student job at the library is a bit fortuitous, but it still remains within the realm of realistic possibility.  Even Mel’s friendship with the librarian’s son, visiting for the summer, presents both solace and confusion: Mel is both attracted to him and embarrassed about her situation, wanting friendship but afraid that when her mother is free they will just be leaving again. In the end, Mel’s own strength allows her to hold on to the life she has made for herself, and readers will cheer her final decision.

The Boy from Left Field (2012), by Tom Henighan

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 17.2.

The Boy from Left Field

The Boy from Left Field is a fast-paced mystery aimed at intermediate school readers.  The issues that arise are an integral part of the narrative, with none taking precedent over the others.
The most significantly problem Hawk faces is negotiating his Native culture as expressed by his Scottish-heritage mother, who has taken on a Native persona, and his Ojibway-Cree father, who is an advocate for Native rights.  His mother’s oppositional personality is what has caused the break-up of the family and kept Hawk from attending Grade 4 at the local school. This blends seamlessly into a depiction of the treatment meted out to disadvantaged students—even when they are gifted—by the mainstream educational system.  With the help of her more reasonable husband, Hawk’s mother ultimately succeeds in having his giftedness recognized and accommodated in a Gifted class.  The ideology of the Gifted program Hawk ends up in is real and admirable, and it is gratifying to see educators portrayed in such a positive light in children’s literature, balanced by the equally authentic depiction of those teachers who see only the behavioural problems, not their sources, in what are sometimes called “twice-exceptional” learners.  While the level of giftedness of the Grade 4 students Hawk joins is unbelievable, all else about his educational experience rings true.  But this is a parental opinion; the child reader will not be focusing on Hawk’s school placement, but on the life he leads in relation to his peers, inside and outside of the school.
Hawk is no stranger to bullying, both in his new class and on the streets, where he lives in an abandoned taxi with his street-vendor mother.  He initially feels alone against the Rippers, the street gang who beats him up and steals his baseball equipment.  He is equally alone against the bully at school who demands payment for amnesty against aggression.  In both cases, through small steps forward and the making and trusting of new friends, Hawk begins to trust the inner strength his father tells him is always there.  Ultimately, both situations are resolved in believable ways.
Multiple plotlines coalesce in the final scenes. Babe Ruth’s first home run ball, lost in Lake Ontario, that Hawk and his neighbor Mr. Rizzuto were trying to locate, turns out to be the target of a crime perpetrated by an Asian Triad, who are getting the Rippers to do their dirty work.  The one problem with the novel lies in Hawk and his friends planning and carrying out a sting on the Rippers as they are robbing the warehouse where the baseball is stored.  The inclusion of “Mr. Big,” the children’s name for the Asian Triad leader who is behind the theft, brings a fun and interesting child-detective tale too much into the real world without the seriousness of tone that should accompany it.  The Rippers are called to account, and no further mention is made of the larger criminal activities associated with the situation.  While the Rippers are a generic street gang the children (and a police cousin) can handle, organized crime and gang involvement is too real a problem in too many young people’s lives to be named explicitly then brushed aside in this way.