August 01, 2016

Pandas on the Eastside

by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers
192 pp
Ages 9-12
October, 2016
Reviewed from advance reading copy 

Never underestimate the power of goodness to overcome that which others consider weaknesses: youth, poverty, lack of education, dysfunctional families.  Ten-year-old Journey Song doesn’t.  She sees beyond the slummy side of the 1970s Eastside of Vancouver and sees a community of friends, that includes classmates, school staff, street people and local merchants.
Some people call the Eastside a slum.  That’s because they are describing buildings and roads instead of people.  To them, people on the Eastside probably look poor, sad, uneducated, sick and worthless.  But I don’t care what they think.  To me, the people around here are friends. (pg. 1)
And she’s going to need all of them in her mission to help the pandas housed in limbo at a local warehouse while the governments of China and the United States engage in a bureaucratic kerfuffle regarding action during the Vietnam War.

Though Pandas on the Eastside is narrated by the youthfully buoyant voice of Journey, each chapter brings another Eastside community member to the forefront, from homeless Kentucky Jack and mentally ill Contrary Gary, to teacher Miss Bickerstaff and her black boyfriend Ben Wallace, and Officer Pete Baker, and grocer Mr. Huang. Everyone adds to Journey’s story, not the least of which is her father whom she meets for the first time, finally answering some of her questions about her heritage.  But, just like everyone else on the Eastside, it doesn’t matter where you come from but who you are now. For Journey, her now involves helping the pandas and hopefully spreading some happiness in a world filled with war and sadness and conflict.

Gabrielle Prendergast, who made her literary mark with young adult novels in verse Audacious (Orca, 2013) and Capricious (Orca, 2014), demonstrates a formidable skill for writing an intricately-plotted, character-filled middle-grade novel that confronts prejudice without preachiness.  Yet it’s Gabrielle Prendergast's rich setting that truly drives the story, providing the impetus for action and consequently acceptance.  Pandas on the Eastside is an uplifting story from a time long-gone but a place ever-present in heart and geography.

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

Kubiw, H. (2016, September). [Review of the book Pandas on the Eastside, by Gabrielle Prendergast]. Quill & Quire, 82 (7): 37.