September 12, 2015

Speechless

by Jennifer Mook-Sang
Scholastic Canada
978-1-4431-4267-0
159 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2015

Jennifer Mook-Sang must have a great sense of humour.  From her characters’ names (Joseph Alton Miles, J.A.M., aka Jelly, and Parker Brown, P.B.–get it? P.B. and Jelly) to the speeches Jelly gives (I won’t give those away!) and Jelly’s clever jabs using art and words to target the self-righteous and downright mean Victoria, Jennifer Mook-Sang finds the means to make speech-writing and bullying into situations that can be handled with humour and aplomb.

Sixth-grader Jelly and all others students in Grades 3 to 6 at Sherwood Forest Public School must participate in speeches but, for the first time, Jelly is eager to compete.  The prize is a tablet computer, something the boy whose TV, computer and video game usage is strictly controlled to virtual non-existence by his parents covets.  But, student council president, resident brainer and high-achieving Victoria won’t even consider someone else winning it, though Jelly is determined “to kick Victoria’s speech’s butt.” (pg. 7)

Sadly, it looks like the stars or karma or the school gods have it in for Jelly who seems to end up in trouble for an assortment of non-malicious actions, including one as a result of helping out at the Food Share Partnership, a local food bank.  And then Jelly gives a great and funny and well-received speech about the redeeming qualities of video games, and Victoria starts to spread a rumour that he copied it from the internet.  This kid just can’t catch a break.  And I haven’t even mentioned how Parker starts acting weird, even believing the rumour; how in trying to help the manager of the food bank with computer issues things become even more complicated; how even after doing well in the competition Jelly has to write another speech and realizes that the “problem was I didn’t have any heart or funny left.” (pg. 129)

But he’s wrong.  Courtesy of Jennifer Mook-Sang’s pen and wit, Jelly has loads of funny left to share.  Take this little gem that starts as an old adage that every child has heard from every coach, teacher and parent:
     It didn’t matter whether I won or lost, I told myself.  It only mattered that I’d done my best and the audience enjoyed it.
      I was such a liar.
 (pg. 146)
Jelly is honest and refreshing and has a quirky but realistic take on things that I wish I heard from more children.  As a teacher, I think I’d be killing myself laughing every time this kid opened his mouth.  Yet he’s not a distracting or over-the-top class clown.  He does his schoolwork, enjoys writing and has a good heart.  If there’s a way to instill compassion through a read-aloud, I think Speechless could do so.  And still entertain.  And while I wouldn’t want to think of Speechless as a teaching tool, I believe middle-grade teachers could benefit from getting Speechless into their classrooms to introduce students to speech-writing and get some much needed humour into the curriculum.  It’s a nice little package with some important lessons told in such an engaging and amusing way.  Well done, Jennifer Mook-Sang.


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If you’re fortunate to live in southern Ontario, consider attending the book launch of Speechless on October 4 at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington.  And judging by the refreshments, it is sure to be worth a chuckle or two as well.

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