by Sara Cassidy
Reviewed from advance reading copy
Writing a great early reader or middle grade novel is very, very dificult. The writer has to ensure that there is enough substance–in the story and characters and writing–to support the interest and reading demands of just a sliver of the youthful reading population. How do you give the reader all that and at an appropriate reading level and in a limited number of pages? I’m especially flummoxed how author Sara Cassidy, who has written both early readers and hi-lo fiction for teens, could pack so much flavour and sensory lushness into A Boy Named Queen’s mere 80 pages. While the story is built on the simple platform of a new friendship, Sara Cassidy has a created a rich landscape of people, places and experiences that heightens the story beyond that humble premise.
The story begins with the last day of summer protocols for Evelyn and her parents as they prepare both girl and house for the beginning of the new school year. Little does Evelyn realize that her annual shoe-buying trip, normally for the dreaded loafers, would be “the last day of my old life” (pg. 18) and herald a new life with sneakers–even if they’re too tight–and a new friend. Grade 5 with Mr. Zhang becomes ever so much more interesting when the confident and distinctive Queen, a long-haired, brogue-wearing boy, joins them. He’s like no one she’s ever met. Even his dog, Patti Smith, who follows Queen to school that first day, is unique, though promptly retrieved by Queen’s pick-up driving rocker of a dad.
The burgeoning friendship between Evelyn and Queen begins with Evelyn trying to be nice to the boy who is obviously used to be ridiculed for his name and sense of style but who is self-possessed enough to withstand it. He shares with her his strategy of creating an imaginary force field that both protects him from the cruel things that some may say or think as well as points all good things directly to his heart.
I love Queen for his sensitivity and courage.
“My name is handy. I watch how people act when they hear it for the first time. It shows me what kind of people they are.” (pg. 64)
But I love Evelyn even more for the colour she perceives in life, from her new runners, that
“bend with her feet. The soles are like licorice instead of breadboards.” (pg 15.)
to Queen’s freckles,
“His freckles outnumber even Evelyn’s. But they’re strong spices–cinnamon, paprika–compared to Evelyn’s weak tea stains.” (pg. 20)
and even Brussel sprouts,
“Evelyn doesn’t like Brussel sprouts. They taste like her fingers taste after she’s held her house key for a while. “ (pg. 50)
She is a young girl with eyes and heart wide open to goodness and joy, and Sara Cassidy ensures that Evelyn is receptive to a heartening friendship with A Boy Named Queen.