November 15, 2011

Out of the Box

by Michelle Mulder
Orca Book Publishers
150 pp.
Ages 9+

Michelle Mulder, author of After Peaches (Orca, 2009), skillfully introduces young readers to two issues rare in their fiction: mental health, usually addressed only peripherally, and the Argentinian "disappeared" people of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

Except in fiction for young adults, most children's fiction incorporates mental illness as supplementary to the main storyline (e.g., Meeting Miss 405 by Lois Peterson (Orca, 2008); The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter (Groundwood, 2005), although a few titles, including Out of the Box, integrate it as the conflict that propels the plot.

Thirteen-year-old Ellie eagerly travels to Victoria to spend the whole summer with her fun-loving aunt Jeanette who recently lost her partner, Alison, to leukemia.  But, it's not her aunt who is having troubles dealing with life.  It's Ellie's mother whose anxiety and stress seem to be driving wedges between herself and her husband, daughter and sister.

While tackling the basement clean-up, Ellie discovers a bandoneón (an Argentinian concertina), the perfect instrument to take her away from her mother-imposed violin lessons and to support her love of tango music.  But, within the red lining, Ellie retrieves a stash of American and Argentinian money, two airplane tickets from 1976 and other papers.  While endeavouring to solve the mystery of the bandoneón and its contents' provenance, and establishing a new friendship, Ellie must endure her mother's emails and phone calls as well as her aunt's attempts to help Ellie enjoy her summer without always bowing to her mother's demands for help.

Mulder does a commendable job of portraying Ellie's mom's illness from all perspectives, such that no one character comes off as callous or self-centered or fabricated.  Mom, Dad, and Ellie have merely developed coping mechanisms that are no longer working for them, and Jeanette is thrust into the role of an intermediary to help both her sister and her niece accept other possibilities.  Linking their relationships' with those of the family represented by the bandoneón demonstrates the differences that can exist between the family perceived and the family experienced.  This disparity in appearances is reinforced with Jeanette and Ellie's interactions with the homeless people at the soup kitchen at which they volunteer weekly.

Michelle Mulder's Out of the Box balances the voices and the messages superbly, suggesting its inevitable inclusion on "must have" book lists.

For more Canadian children's literature dealing with mental health, check out Meghan's blog for the Canadian Children's Book Centre: Mental Illness Awareness Week: Recommended Books for Young People

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