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.

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The Servant (2013), by Fatima Sharafeddine

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 18.5.

The Servant

Sharafeddine-Servant
The Servant is aptly described on its front cover as a “Cinderella story—with more than a few twists.” The setting—war-torn Lebanon in the late 1980s—presents narrative possibilities that Fatima Sharafeddine explores effectively. The story is powerful, but weakened significantly by a stilted diction in both the narration and the dialogue, and too much “telling” by the author when the characters should be “showing” us their world. Nonetheless, Sharafeddine’s short novel is well worth reading, for its moving representation of a young girl caught in a traditional world turned on its head both by conflict and by encroaching modern ideals.

The protagonist, Faten, is sent from their village to a rich family in Beirut at the age of 15. Her father arrives monthly to take her pay: Faten has roof over her head, but no freedom, no income of her own, and no hope for her future. When the young attractive Marwan moves into a neighbouring house, she cannot help but be attracted to him. In true Cinderella fashion, he is attracted to her, as well. She is practically and indentured servant; he is a rich engineering student: their path is not easy, especially when he does possess the same level of courage as Faten does in standing up to the constraints of their families and society. More important than their nascent romance, however, are Faten’s dreams of continuing her education. Marwan facilitates this through their very occasional meetings and notes passed through a friend, but eventually the duplicity required to fulfill her dreams catches up with her. It is at this juncture that we see the real strength Faten has, and we learn the answer to her earlier questioning of a traditional poem: “Should the worm be satisfied being stuck in the ground and give up on her dream of flying like the bird because she might be hunted?” (30). Faten’s choices leave her free in a way that other character’s choices have bound them within the confines of a traditionalist patriarchy, and we applaud her.

Violet (2009), by Tania Duprey Stehlik

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 15.5.

Violet

Violet is starting a new school, but is worried that she won’t have friends because she is, well, violet.  When she discovers a myriad of other-coloured students in her new class, she is only somewhat reassured: “There were red kids, yellow kids, and blue kids…” But they all have red, yellow, and blue parents.
Mixed-ethnicity is explained to the reader through the vibrant skin colours of the characters, engagingly drawn by Jovanovic to reflect a world both interesting and yet subtly disturbing, much like Violet’s experience of school.  Violet’s Dad is blue; her Mom is red; Violet is purple.  The analogy is simple and effective.  The only problem with the story is that it ends too soon.  Once Violet realizes where her own unique colour comes from—blue+red=purple—the reader would benefit from her perhaps meeting another child in similar circumstances: Hazel’s parents could be green and brown; Amber’s could be red and yellow… But the story ends abruptly with Violet’s realization of her uniqueness, which does not, I think, send a message of belonging as strongly as this very promising and imaginatively conceived story could.

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.