December 27, 2015

The Biggest Poutine in the World

by Andrée Poulin
Translated by Brigitte Waisberg
Annick Press
160 pp.
Ages 9-12
March, 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy 

Using food to fill the void of loneliness and to quench the anguish of abandonment would not be unusual but using a 650-kilogram poutine to smother the emptiness of a cold, distant father and an absentee mother is definitely unique.  But that’s what twelve-year-old Thomas Gagné of Sainte-Alphonsine believes might offer his pathetic life some hope.
A glimmer of hope lights up in my mind.  A tiny, fragile, trembling glimmer.  I try not to pay too much attention to it. I’ve tasted disappointment before, and it doesn’t taste good. (pg. 11)
Though it has been seven long years since he’s seen his mother–and yet he does receive  very brief notes with cash from her at his birthday–Thomas has fond memories of her making poutine for him: peeling whole bags of potatoes, buying cheese curds together, making the gravy and cooking the fries.  Taking a cue from his favourite website, the Guinness World Records, Thomas concocts the idea of making a giant poutine and feeding hundreds of people so that he might earn a world record and become worthy of the attention of his parents.  So begins the Phenomenal Poutine Project, PPP, for which Thomas enlists the help of his best friend, Sam Bernier; Sam’s godfather and French fry truck owner Fat Frank; and Irene Ladouceur, who runs the local cheese shop and insists Thomas include her daughter Elie in the project.  But things run amok when the mayor, Thérèse Tartatcheff, refuses to rent the arena to Thomas for the event.

Thomas is not deterred, however, and cooks up a plan to kidnap the mayor’s Senegal parrot and then recover the bird, all to sway Tartatcheff into relenting to his PPP.  But, as with so many good plans, things go awry.  His friendships with Sam and Elie, his missing mother, his aloof father, an allergic reaction, a wayward parrot, and a candy-pink note all get heaped on top of each other and smothered in emotions.  Fortunately, all culminates in a satisfying fusion of humour and coming-of-age drama, with a side order of dysfunctional family.

The Biggest Poutine in the World is the English translation, by Annick Press’s Brigitte Waisberg, of Andrée Poulin’s La plus grosse poutine du monde (Bayard Canada, 2013) which won the 2014 Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse and the 2015 Le Prix Tamarac of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading.  The story is a visually-appealing mixture of graphics, including fun text messages between Thomas and Sam, drawings of emails between Thomas and Elie, an album of types of poutine (who knew there were so many!), and black-and-white sketches, with text set in large font and broken into small chapters with massive titles.  Young readers will undoubtedly appreciate the organizational format of the book but it’s the story line with which they will empathize.  Thomas is a boy with much resentment, anger and jealousy and yet he can still see the potential for hopefulness.  He even has a willingness and positivity to accept a challenge to captivate that hope although obstacles and self-doubt test him.

With The Biggest Poutine in the World, Andrée Poulin demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of a child’s mind when faced with familial conflict.  Being an accomplished author of over 30 French-language picture books and children’s novels, Andrée Poulin effortlessly translates that strife with compassion and humour into an uplifting tale of friendship and determination and emotional growth.  It does pull a bit at the heart, but no more than the occasional high-cholesterol poutine might.

(A version of this review was originally written for and published in Quill & Quire, as noted in the citation below.)

Kubiw, H. (2016, January/February). [Review of the book The Biggest Poutine in the World, by Andrée Poulin]. Quill & Quire, 82 (1): 44.

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