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.

The Gargoyle Overhead (2010), by Philippa Dowding

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 16.1.

The Gargoyle Overhead

Philippa Dowding has followed The Gargoyle in my Yard (2009) with a gripping tale of suspense, perfectly moulded for the 8-12 year old reader.  The story incorporates magic delightfully into a well-constructed, realist presentation of modern Toronto. Unfortunately, in this book, we do not learn why these gargoyles are alive while others are not, and for readers who have not had the privilege of reading The Gargoyle in my Yard, the rightful “ownership” of Gargoth, the gargoyle of the title, becomes a question towards the end.  Readers will look past these small omissions easily, however, for the joy of following Dowding’s engaging tale.
Dowding’s protagonists are genuine and interesting, and the balance of autonomy and dependence she gives young Katherine will satisfy both parents and young readers.  Gargoth and his best friend, Ambergine, are both well-rounded characters in the their own rights, and readers will fall in love with both of them. I would love to see an illustrated edition, as the body language of Dowding’s gargoyles is so much a part of their characterization.  Dowding’s plot moves quickly, despite the flashbacks to Ambergine and Gargoth’s years together and apart since the 1660s in France.  European and American history is blended artfully into Gargoth’s story, heightening the sense of the gargoyles’ magical existence, and of their loneliness during 148 years apart.  The ending of the novel, while not precluding further tales, leaves the two gargoyles free agents in their lives: a happy ending, but certainly not what the reader will expect.  Overall, I would highly recommend this story to young independent readers with an interest in magic and magical creatures.

Ingrid and the Wolf (2005), by André Alexis

A modern fable, set in Toronto and Hungary.  Young Ingrid’s family lives in semi-poverty—both parents work as servants to richer Torontonians—but when she turns 11, she is contacted by her grandmother, a countess who wants Ingrid to come “home” to her.  Within the realism of familial discord, Ingrid’s own story is archetypal: she must pass three challenges, as all Balazs children have in the past, to prove she is of their “noble” bloodlines, and worthy to inherit the family legacy.  The third challenge involves a labyrinth with a wolf in lieu of the minotaur, beneath the castle foundations.  Ingrid’s simplicity and honour—two characteristics she has inherited from her egalitarian father as well as imbibed from the more humble Canadian setting—help her to not only navigate the maze, but ultimately to release the wolf, who becomes her life-long protector.  In bringing Gabor the wolf home to Canada, caring for him, and learning how to function in society so that he does not threaten those around her, Ingrid grows into a mature, self-assured young woman.  This is truly a coming-of-age story with a difference; would that we all had a castle in Hungary to inherit, noble blood to support us, and a wolf-guard to protect and love us throughout our lives.  But the lessons Ingrid learns are the same as any young girl entering adolescence, and readers will love the blend of fairy tale and realism that Alexis gives us.