July 19, 2018

The Whirlpool

Written by Laurel Croza
Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Groundwood Books
96 pp.
Ages 10-14
May 2018

Don't be deceived by the simple cover illustration and the less-than-100 page count. The Whirlpool, a collection of seven short stories from award-winning picture book author Laurel Croza, is not an early reader.  Its stories are sophisticated and aimed at upper middle grades, covering a wide variety of issues from emotional abuse and grief to destiny and bullying.

In It's a Step, the narrator Charity lives with her mother and abusive father.  As her dad rails against her mom taking a job at Tim's, both mother and daughter find the means to take a small step to a better life.  In Book of Dreams, Mike finds the support he doesn't get at home from his mom and her latest boyfriend at a restaurant where he gets respect, appreciation and a turkey dinner. While a very different story in terms of characters, OH! is also about finding home. The Oh! So Perfect Hair Dolly goes from factory to store shelf and dreams of being named by a child. The desolation of being passed over during Christmas shopping and then being relegated to the reduced price bin is reflective of any child who has felt unloved.  

The Whirlpool is the story of fifteen-year-old Jasmine who is the brunt of swirling rumours at the whirlpool that is school about her having a baby. As she deals with the gossip and nastiness, Jasmine resolves to "look the whirlpool in the eye" (pg. 30) and reveal her story. A Beautiful Smile also looks at nastiness at school, this time with a young teen from the north standing up to a mean girl at her new Toronto school. Most satisfying is the public and clever way in which Nicola finds support and salvation.

Although all the stories have something important to impart, my two favourite stories are The Sunflower and Destiny. Though told from the perspective of a squirrel, The Sunflower is neither trite nor silly. It is an emotional story about loss and grief and making connections, and I defy anyone not to sob at its telling.  Destiny is a revealing story about following one's dreams, regardless of others' desires and opinions.  Johnny helped inspire his younger sister Dani to play hockey even when her father thought figure skating would be more appropriate. Dani persevered and changed her father's mind about her playing hockey. Now, with Johnny drafted to the OHL, she wants to help her brother accept his true destiny too.

Each story in Laurel Croza's collection is packed with emotional growth, from taking first steps to fulfilling one's destiny, or saving yourself, or accepting strengths and weaknesses as part of the whole package. The stories may be brief (each less than 20 pages) but they wallop you with the power of their storytelling, dialogue and message. My favourite, The Sunflower, does that all in five pages.

I shouldn't be surprised that Laurel Croza can weave such powerful tales. Her highly-acclaimed picture books, I Know Here and From There to Here, which were beautifully illustrated by Matt James, conveyed amazing stories in few words. But these stories are not picture book tales transformed into text. They are not for our youngest readers, though, because of the length of the books, parents and teachers might expect them to be so.  The stories in The Whirlpool collection deal with issues of abuse, gossip, abandonment, and death. While these are issues with which younger readers may be familiar, the older protagonists in Laurel Croza's stories suggest that older middle grade readers might understand the messages better.

I've always loved short story collections for the breadth of stories that can be told and the piecemeal manner in which the text can be read. They are potent teaching tools and convenient for reading in shorter time periods. With The Whirlpool, Laurel Croza has provided a worthwhile addition to the youngCanLit collection of short story anthologies as it enlightens, reassures and inspires.

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