Showing posts with label abuse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abuse. Show all posts

December 09, 2019

My Story Starts Here: Voices of Young Offenders

Written by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
978-1-77306-121-4
224 pp.
Ages 13+
October 2019
Reviewed from advance reading copy


Deborah Ellis's opening words "There but for the grace of God go I" from John Bradford are prophetic ones that resonate throughout her latest young adult non-fiction book as young offenders, recent and not, and others unmask family histories, criminal offences and misdeeds, judgements and outcomes. They are stories that could be anyone's but these are their own voices, told as they lived or recall, and they deserve to be heard.

Over twenty young people, named only by their first name and age, were interviewed by Deborah Ellis, a process which she explains in her introduction. Their stories include domestic abuse, poverty, addictions, bullying, foster care, loss, mental health struggles and family dysfunction. Their stories are as diverse as the individuals profiled and we learn a lot about each person beyond the crimes that drove them into the criminal justice system. But there are the crimes, from theft to assault, vandalism and arson, and trafficking of drugs and weapons. Still Deborah Ellis gives these young people the opportunity to explain. To explain where they came from, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, and how justice may or may not have been served. Many are hopeful, trying to see beyond their pasts and their pains and their crimes, and make futures for themselves and their families for which they might be proud. They're not perfect, but then none of us are, and some minimize their responsibilities for choices made while others own their decisions and circumstances.
I don't know if I'll ever get rid of the pain I'm carrying. Maybe I can turn it into something not so heavy. (Lindy, 19)
But Deborah Ellis does more than just give voice to these young offenders. She offers background information about anger, foster care, abusive relationships, witnessing abuse, restorative justice and the importance of a high school diploma. In a question accompanying each young offender's story, she makes the reader think about how they might address the issues which these young people have experienced and makes suggestions about how to make things better in her "Taking Steps" sections. Still the best advice often comes from the young people themselves.
That little thing that's in the back of your head, that says, "Don't do this!"? Listen to it the first time. (Beth, 19)
In addition to the twenty plus young people she highlights, Deborah Ellis also gives voice to past offenders and those who work with young offenders–these are each identified as a "Voice of Experience"–and family members of offenders. Their perspectives, from the distance of time and the other side of the justice system and from the heartfelt viewpoint of family, give different frames of reference to the hardships with which these young people have been dealt or are dealing. 

Deborah Ellis has always sought justice in letting those whose voices are rarely heard speak freely. From Three Wishes (2004) and Off to War (2008) to Kids of Kabul (2011) as well as Looks Like Daylight (2013), Deborah Ellis has let us hear what Palestinian and Israeli children, children affected by AIDS, soldiers' children, Iraqi refugees, and Indigenous kids have to say. She holds true what Maya Angelou acknowledges so eloquently in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

With My Story Starts Here, Deborah Ellis has released the untold stories of young offenders and hopefully provided them with another step forward to healing.

March 18, 2019

The Moon Watched It All

Written by Shelley A. Leedahl
Illustrated by Aino Anto
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-537-0
32 pp.
Ages 5-9
February 2019

The moon may watch over all of us, sometimes only shining light or hiding in the dark, but, like a watchful deity, it is omnipresent, guiding with a subtle beacon for those seeking direction.

An orphaned boy with only vague memories of a woman's voice and a gentle hand survives alone seeking food and clothing wherever and living in the forest. Elsewhere a woman known as Miranda lives in her home near the woods, rocking and talking to the moon.
She praised it, like she once prized her children, in a time before a time that was then.
From The Moon Watched It All by Shelley A. Leedahl, illus. by Aino Anto
After a man brutally chases the boy away–"Get you, Boy"–he runs far away, finding shelter in a chicken coop and food in an adjacent garden. The moon whispers to Miranda of the boy in the garden but it is not until she is ready to invite him inside for better food and shelter that the two become true companions, finding a way to be themselves with each other.

The Moon Watched It All may be marketed for ages five to nine but I think it is an allegory of such depth that it can and should be read beyond those ages. At its foundation, it is a story of an orphan boy, scorned and rejected, who finds a home with a woman alone who talks to the moon. But, in each, they find the family that they have lost.
From The Moon Watched It All by Shelley A. Leedahl, illus. by Aino Anto
Shelley A. Leedahl's intense story may be in prose form but its intensity parallels that of poetry, steeped in the melancholy of Miranda ...
Her face in the moon's unwavering spotlight. She was a lake unruffled, the coal fire's glow. 
... and the isolation and trepidation of the boy.
Night came calling, and he thought of boots, of heels, and the finger-quick hands. He thought of the children with sticks, and villagers who possessed the power to look right through him. The boy held out his own hand, and could not keep it steady.
From The Moon Watched It All by Shelley A. Leedahl, illus. by Aino Anto
There is a stillness of person and place that seeps into the story which is far more extensive in text and lyricism than in books typically for the very young. As such it has a strength of message that is both serene and profound. It bears being read over and over to capture the importance of the text and its voice of solemnity and grace.  I don't know if that comes from Shelley A. Leedahl's skill as a poet but her words lull and inspire and tug and reassure.

The same goes for Aino Anto's illustrations that take the readers through the forest and beneath the moon, watching and waiting as the boy and the woman do. This is Aino Anto's first picture book and her paintings evoke such emotion without indignation at what are sad circumstances for both the boy, whose identity is only that of Boy, and for Miranda, who endures the passage of time rather than biding it for hope. Or that was the situation until they make a family of their own.

I wept for a mother alone and forgotten and a boy ignored and abused. Each alone in their own ways, one speaking to the moon and one living outside in its light. And the moon watched it all as the two come together, as a waxing moon, growing into something important.

December 28, 2018

Sadie

Written by Courtney Summers
Wednesday Books
978-1-250-10571-4
308 pp.
Ages 14+
September 2018

If you notice that the book cover is larger than I usually post, it's because Sadie, the book and the girl, should not be relegated to the back or to a corner to be forgotten. In her life, Sadie was neglected and abused and she may have felt insignificant, but she is courageous and responsible, and she deserves to be noticed–and not because of her stuttering–and her extraordinary efforts appreciated.

Sadie begins with the murder of Sadie's thirteen-year-old sister, Mattie Southern, after she'd left their home in Cold Creek, Colorado, ostensibly to search out their mother Claire, who'd left 3 years earlier. Mattie had never given up hope on her mother, an addict who'd showered her meagre love and limited attention on her youngest daughter and essentially ignored or was hostile to her eldest.
I can't even put into words what it's like to swallow down a moment like that, but I can tell you exactly how bitter it tastes. (pg. 55-6)
Sadie had given all of herself to her baby sister and mothered Mattie even more, when at 16, it was just the two of them, abandoned and living in a trailer park run by their surrogate grandmother, May Beth Foster.  When Sadie disappears eight months after her sister's murder and her car found abandoned the next month, May Beth contacts WNRK New York to get some media attention and help. So begins a serialized podcast, The Girls, by producer West McCray, who pursues Sadie's story and consequently Mattie's as well.
The Girls explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery. It's a story about family, about sisters, and the untold lives lived in small-town America. It's about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love. . . and the high price we pay when we can't. (pg. 1)
Sadie alternates between The Girls podcast and Sadie's telling of her pursuit of justice for her sister. West's podcast includes narration and interviews with persons of interest as he tries to locate Sadie, all the while unravelling her story. There's May Beth Foster who acts as his home base for information and clarification, and then the people Sadie meets along her journey. The chapters based on Sadie's pursuit of Mattie's murderer begin at an out-of-town diner where Sadie suggests she's looking for her father, always showing a photo of her family with Claire's ex, Keith. From that starting point, she gets one lead after another, desperate to locate the man she is convinced is responsible for Mattie's death. Mixed with reminiscences, many unsettling, as triggered by those she meets, Sadie must uncover Keith's story, told from the points of view of those who considered him a good guy and those who won't reveal much from the cloak of shame and trauma. Regardless, she pursues and inevitably helps in ways she might never know.

Courtney Summers always tells bold stories, whether based on zombies (This is Not a Test, 2012; Please Remain Calm, 2014), on sexual assault and shame (All the Rage, 2015), on bullying (Some Girls Are, 2010) or self-destruction (Cracked Up to Be, 2008). They immerse the reader in tense situations of agonizing brutality, emotional and physical, that rarely have happy endings. But that's reality. Life is not neat and it's not fair. It's raw and real and not for the faint of heart. Courtney Summers sugarcoats nothing. Nothing at all. Even as West McCray speaks to witnesses or persons of interest, they spin Sadie's story with an effort to make themselves look better. It's not honest but it's real. Take Claire, for instance. This woman cared more for the child who looked like her than the one who didn't (and blames that on her youth, her mother's death and May Beth); neglected her children in favour of her addiction; sends an abuser packing only when she suspects he might have attacked her favourite; abandons her children for years; and blames West McCray when he can't find Sadie. Yikes. Sadie's story is gut-wrenching in itself: bullied for her stuttering, neglected by her mother, abused by her mother's boyfriend, abandoned, becoming a surrogate parent to a resentful child, and grief-stricken for her beloved sister. Her story is almost too much to take.

Don't look for a happy ending in Sadie, and it's not because Courtney Summers ends Sadie with another tragedy. It's just hard to tell what kind of an ending Courtney Summers has given readers. While there is justice, Courtney Summers also leaves a gaping hole in Sadie's story that readers will need to fill, either with hope for a new story for Sadie or with another tragedy to complete her original one. Read Sadie and let me know what you think happened to this fierce young woman because her story is far too important to let her be forgotten.

August 01, 2018

Fifteen Point Nine

Written by Holly Dobbie
DCB
978-1-77086-523-5
240 pp.
Ages 13+
June 2018

The bullying that fifteen-year-old Agatha Murphy and others endure at the hands of “Those Girls” and the “Idiot Boys” who follow them around is physical, degrading and unconscionable.  They only see that Susan is overweight, that Carson is very small, that Travis is highly intelligent, and that Nicole has sweat issues. But it’s Aggie’s countless issues that are at the heart of Fifteen Point Nine. Aggie’s mother Jane is a paranoid alcoholic who scavenges and hoards and is oblivious to her daughter’s needs for food, clean clothes, and even a functional washroom. The bullies may ridicule Aggie for being dirty and smelling, as well as rummaging for food, but they and everyone else, including the school, doesn’t know about her mother and Aggie’s need to self-harm to relieve her anxiety and despair. Aggie may lighten that despair with barbed monikers including “The Torture Chamber” for school and “The Dump” for home, by ranking potential moments on her Official Romantic Scale, and by imagining outrageous scenarios that would whisk her away, but Aggie knows her situation is becoming intolerable.
I’m going to try to be more of a human being and less of a rodent, although it’s obviously something that I’m not very good at. (pg. 14)
In an attempt to take some control, Aggie decides to use an old camcorder to document the bullying in all its visual and audio horror. Unexpectedly, Susan becomes an ally in Aggie’s video endeavour, as do Carson, Travis and Nicole. These teens, deemed misfits by their cruel peers, become the Warriors Video Club and resolve to expose the bullies.

While Aggie continues to suffer at the hands of her horrid mother and the bullies, there are unexpected glimmers of something better, including  kindness from a school janitor and several moms, some Johnny Cash-infused wisdom from Jane’s newest suitor,
"Pain ain’t no good thing. Aint’t nobody out there gonna hand you a prize for storin’ shit in your heart.” (pg. 185)
and, most importantly, notes from an anonymous boy who wants her to attend the Winter Solstice Carnival dance. But, when a classmate commits suicide, Aggie’s perspective on survival and taking charge is put to the test.

Fifteen Point Nine may be Holly Dobbie’s debut novel but her teaching experiences with teens have served her well in telling the story convincingly. For those living through bullying, parental neglect, suicide of a peer and dejection, the authenticity of Fifteen Point Nine will hit hard, particularly in its harshness and near hopelessness. Still, Holly Dobbie makes it clear that, for those who do suffer at the hands of others, every day of survival is a victory and making it past fifteen point nine (just less than sixteen years of age) is a triumph.


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

Kubiw, H. (2018, September). [Review of the book Fifteen Point Nine, by Holly Dobbie]. Quill & Quire, 84 (7): 37.

July 26, 2018

A Girl Like That

Written by Tanaz Bhathena
Farrar Straus Giroux
978-0-374-30544-4
369 pp.
Ages 13-18
February 2018

Zarin Wadia, sixteen, is A Girl Like That. She's seen as provocative, rebellious, and clever but her story is one of tragedy from birth to her death.

Zarin's death, along with that of a young man, Porus Dumasia, in a car accident is not a surprise ending. It begins the book with Zarin's guardians, Masi (mother's sister) and Masa (maternal uncle), and Porus's mother wailing over the dead teens. How they got there which is essentially Zarin's back story is the story of A Girl Like That. Told in multiple voices of Zarin, Porus, a gossipy classmate Mishal, and a boy Farhan with whom Zarin becomes involved, Tanaz Bhathena's first young adult novel is a study in nature vs. nurture for a teen whose origins were considered shameful and whose upbringing was rife with physical and emotional abuse. 
Memories...can be like splinters, digging into you when you least expect them to, holding tight and sharp the way wood did when it slid under a fingernail. (pg. 27)
Zarin is never made to feel like she belongs. Not with her Masi and Masa who take her in after her unmarried mother's death or at Qala Academy, the school she attends after they move from India to Saudi Arabia. She is shamed at home by her abusive and mentally ill Masi–and infrequently defended by Masa–for her illegitimacy, her gangster father and issues related to her being a girl. At school, a place where rumours are currency, especially for Mishal the anonymous BlueNiqab blogger and gossip monger, Zarin's classmates look down their noses at her for her heritage and standoffish ways. Still, Zarin endures. She hides the abuses and thumbs her nose at those who shame her. She smokes and she goes riding in cars with boys, an offense according to Sharia law.

And then her childhood Parsi friend, Porus, moves to Jeddah with his mother after the death of his beloved father. Zarin and Porus resume their friendship though it is an unconventional one, with Porus completely smitten and Zarin dating other boys and not sure she is capable of loving anyone. When Zarin is the victim of an assault by Farhan, her world at home and school dissolves into a muddy mess of anger, gossip, shaming, and revenge, with Zarin's desperately searching for courage and safety, within and without.

A Girl Like That is garnering much attention because of Tanaz Bhathena's story about gender inequality and religion-based social restrictions in Saudi Arabia. By focusing on a world that is intimate to many but foreign to so many others, Tanaz Bhathena is both honouring those who live Zarin's life and educating those unfamiliar with the restrictions and distinctions of living with abuse, segregation, cultural discrimination, gender inequality and religious policing.  But beyond the cultural milieu, A Girl Like That is still a statement about the need for self-expression, to fight self and others, to become who you are. Zarin's story is still a tragedy for the abuses inflicted upon her by family, both young men and women, and her cultures but she finds a way to fly, even without wings.
Because a bird only learns to fly when its wings are broken. (pg. 318)

July 19, 2018

The Whirlpool

Written by Laurel Croza
Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Groundwood Books
978-1-77306-032-3
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.

June 22, 2016

Beware That Girl

by Teresa Toten
Delacorte Press
978-0-553-50790-4
336 pp.
Ages 14+
May 2016

Kate and Olivia.  Two eighteen-year-old seniors at a private school known as Waverly in New York City.  It’s hard to tell which girl is “that girl” mentioned in the title Beware That Girl.  Kate, the brilliant, manipulative liar who plans out every step she takes to ensure she gets the “big life she wants” or Olivia, rich and beautiful but emotionally fragile “just messed up enough” (pg. 4) for Kate to befriend.  The two secretive girls are “Two unlikely peas in a pod” (pg. 47) in more ways than one.

Kate O’Brian, a high-achieving Waverly scholar, is determined to get to Yale regardless of her current status as a basement boarder and employee at Chen’s Chinese Market and Apothecary.  Also working mornings at the school office, Kate searches for her ticket out of her miserable situation and targets Olivia Sumner whose record indicates missed school due to psychological issues.  The two girls become acquainted and, when charmed by the new director of fundraising, the charismatic Mark Redkin, to start a Student Advancement Committee, Kate gets Olivia, as well as classmates Serena, Morgan and Claire on board.  Soon Olivia has asked Kate to move in to the penthouse she shares with her globe-trotting lawyer father and their housekeeper Anka.
Becoming friends was a kind of courtship.  A ritual of presenting your best self to the other.  Each knew not to push too much, too fast.  In their conversations, the girls reached for all their similarities willfully ignoring the differences.” (pg. 38)
It’s the differences and secrets that still separate the girls, neither being completely honest about their pasts and fears and desires.  They each have an agenda for their friendship, which becomes all the more complicated when Olivia becomes involved in an intimate relationship with Mark Redkin.  Recognizing him as a “player of biblical proportions” (pg. 120), Kate sees Redkin as more than a threat to their friendship, realizing that “Redkin was going for power, information and amusement.  What a trifecta.” (pg. 155)

Beware That Girl is a suspense-laden, surprise-ending story that provides a glimpse of a friendship based on the instability of secrets and schemes.  And even though there are moments of affability and benevolence–usually involving the irascible Mrs. Chen, the girls’ shared mutt Bruce, and the thoughtful Johnny who is crushing on Kate–Teresa Toten’s intimate portrayal of a friendship initiated in manipulation will disquiet the reader.  From the onset of the book, a scene in which one girl sits at the hospital bed of another while the police wait to question them, Beware That Girl is dominated by uncertainty and foreboding.  Teresa Toten may tease the reader with storylines that intimate which character should be heeded but you’ll never know for certain.  That is, until her crushing ending that reveals the strength of Teresa Toten’s plotting, story-telling and characterizations.  Don’t be alarmed if you have to reread the final four-page chapter–I did–just to assure yourself that this masterful writer has truly reconciled all those secrets and agendas in a bombshell of an ending.  She does and it is.

May 05, 2015

Forever Julia

by Jodi Carmichael
Great Plains Teen Fiction
978-1-927855-20-1
262 pp.
Ages 14+
April, 2015

Julia Collins must feel like she's living her life from out-of-body. And with the life she has, I might want out too. Her much-adored dad has passed from cancer just 6 months ago, and her Mom is so grief-stricken that she can't even bear to speak of him.  They now live in a small two-bedroom flat above their bookstore and money is an issue, though Julia had never minds thrift-store shopping with her long-time best friend and creative fashionista, Annika, who understands about Julia's issues with depression and anxiety and watches out for her constantly.

But now Julia is going out with the obscenely wealthy Jeremy Thurston, a.k.a. the Third, jock and popularity icon, and he is pressuring her to have sex, though she has made it clear that she is not ready.  The gutsy Annika can’t stand Jeremy and makes it clear every time he pulls some stunt, like kicking Julia out of the ski chalet where they were supposed spend the night when she refuses his advances yet again.  Sadly, in her mind, Julia is convinced that she can have it all: the wonderful dating relationship with Jeremy who calls her “beautiful”; new friendships with the popular girls; a scholarship to USC for architecture; and the best friendship she has ever had.  Imagine thinking,
Maybe if I convince Annika to tone down her wardrobe, Jeremy would see how incredible she really is and then maybe everyone would get along. (pg. 105)
Sadly naïve, but probably not atypical for a teen who is trying to work everything out.

Then Grandma, who generally splits her time between Arizona and the cottage, arrives to stay–in Julia’s room–while being treated for breast cancer.  Now both Grandma and Mom are watching her and what’s going on around her, and they’re not always pleased by what they see.

It’s not surprising that Julia questions everything that she feels but what’s worse is that she never trusts her feelings to be legit or honest.  Whether that’s because of her anxiety or depression is irrelevant.  All that matters is that the life that was once warmed with Dad and Mom happily living in a modest home and with a reliable and loving BFF is now a life she doesn’t even recognize as her own.  Who is the girl who lets herself drink when she knows it’s verboten with the meds she’s on?  Who is the girl who kisses her boyfriend in public like there's no one else around?  Who is the girl who apologizes to a guy who thinks nothing of stranding her at a ski resort when she doesn’t want to have sex?  Jeremy may get a tattoo, even a temporary one, that reads “Forever Julia” but Julia can’t be forever when she doesn’t  know who she is, who she wants to be, or who she can be.

Jodi Carmichael gets inside of this Julia and gives her a true voice, albeit one mixed and confused with guilt, grief, envy, desire, and affection.  Julia definitely morphs over the course of Forever Julia though I suspect she hasn’t come into herself completely, yet. Forever is a long time to be someone, to love someone, to trust someone, to be friends. It may be possible but maybe not.  Not everything can be forever: not life, not love, not lust, not even family nor  friends.  And Jodi Carmichael makes sure that Julia accepts this, even if only temporarily, in Forever Julia.

February 22, 2015

Switch

by Douglas Davey
Red Deer Press
978-0-88995-524-0
252 pp.
Ages 15+
2014

Back in 1988, when Sheldon Bates was seventeen, a confusing encounter during swimming practice sets him asking big questions about his sexuality. Now, through his personal notes from the time, footnoted with his current thoughts, Sheldon records that tumultuous year of discovery, fear, discomfiture, bullying, and understanding in Switch.

Though dating Jenny, to whom he is wildly attracted, Sheldon conducts a little experiment and some research, hoping to clarify for himself what he is feeling. His wish, "Please, please, please let me not be gay..." (pg. 22), suggests his ensuing stress and incomprehension, not surprising in a time when discussions of sexual orientation were verboten and information limited to a dictionary and a thesaurus. And, if he can't understand it, how will Jenny, best friend Dan or older brother Bill react? Sadly, not as he expects, and his personal issue becomes fodder for school gossip and verbal and physical abuse.
I ate. I slept. I went to class. I watched TV. I looked like I was awake but in fact I was sleepwalking through life with no clue how to wake up or get out. After a while, the terrible flow of days became a gray smear. (pg. 79)
Two things change everything. First, Sheldon is invited to join several other students at lunch in Room 115. There in Mr. Aiden's classroom, Sheldon feels safe. He can access a cupboard of relevant informational books and pamphlets. He can also choose to interact with a handful of students grappling with their own sexuality. Secondly, his English teacher, Mrs. Piedmont, assigns her students speeches, and Sheldon thinks about focusing on what he's going through as a possible topic. That decision will bring Sheldon both tragedy and deliverance.

I, for one, would never want to return to my high school years. Even without the aggravation of questioning your sexual orientation, teens have so much with which they must deal: puberty, body image, independence, career choices, responsibility. And not every teen has resources available to help them navigate those complicated treks. In the late 1980s, with no internet, with the AIDS crisis, and the secrecy virtually mandated by societal discrimination, the topic of bisexuality was still taboo, and kids like Sheldon would inevitably be left floundering for support. How he was able to survive, emotionally and physically, is both remarkable and gratifying. Douglas Davey, who was able to evoke that same trepidation and confusion in M in the Abstract (Red Deer Press, 2013), keeps readers repeatedly wondering how Sheldon will address his latest dilemma, or whether he will expose himself to more abuse by speaking publicly of his bisexuality, or when he will ask for the support of the school's administration or his parents. It is hard to believe the youthful Douglas Davey could present the 1980s of Sheldon's story so completely but that grey haze of being exposed to public scrutiny and discrimination is subtly exposed as a sign of the times and hopefully one that efforts have been made to rewrite.

Switch should belong in the 2015 version of Mr. Aiden's cupboard or, better yet, in high school libraries where everyone and anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, could share in the emotional turmoil of Sheldon Bates. Douglas Davey is providing us with the insight that, with greater awareness, could help us become more empathetic to those struggling with issues of sexual orientation. Let's hope we all accept Switch as that tool for learning.

September 02, 2014

Rabbit Ears

by Maggie De Vries
HarperCollins Canada
978-1-44341-662-7
222 pp.
Ages 13+
March, 2014
 
Don't be deceived by the innocuous, seemingly innocent, title. Rabbit Ears is neither.  It is a tough story, and it's based on a true story which is devastating. 

Kaya is only 13 but life has not been kind to her, though almost no one knows what she has and continues to endure.  Her sister Beth, 16, watches out for her as best she can but she doesn't understand what motivates Kaya, and their mom continues to want to save Kaya from herself, sending the police out for her, excusing her adopted daughter's attitude, and giving her opportunities to recover from her troubled times.  It's an endless cycle of running away to unsafe situations, returning home, trying to stick with the "normal" life, and then abandoning it yet again.

Told in the alternating voices of Kaya and Beth, Rabbit Ears takes readers into the unseemly and dangerous dark side of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, to which Kaya is introduced by another student, Michelle, who rescues Kaya from a beating at school.  Though she enjoys the freedom of hanging with street kids, taking pot and avoiding school, Kaya tries to do the right thing, knowing that her sister and mother have her best interests at heart.  But, with school feeling more and more impossible, especially after a girl, Diana, whom Kaya obviously knows, starts going to her high school, and home not feeling like the right place for her to be, Kaya goes downtown with Michelle again. This time, though, Michelle trades sex for heroin and Kaya meets a sex trade worker, Sarah, who tells her to go home.  But Kaya returns and begins her own descent into heroin use and prostitution.

Though Kaya is gone for weeks, and her mom and sister continue to search for her, there is a trip to Kamloops which rekindles Beth's fascination with magic and reminiscences of her dad's passing. It's those memories that help Beth put together the fragments of Kaya's life that may explain her sister's thinking and feelings.

Just like the toy rabbit in Beth's box-to-box trick–in which it is made to appear in a different box from the one in which it originated–there is much that is mysterious about Kaya's disappearances and reappearances.  Her thinking is unpredictable, based on circumstances unknown to her family, even to herself.  She knows that home is the better place to be, but it continues to feel wrong to her.  No child should ever feel that, especially when the option is to find consolation on the streets at age 13.  Like those rabbit ears, barely poking out of the box, Kaya tries to stay put and on her mom and Beth's radars, but sometimes going elsewhere is her only choice.

As I plainly announced in the introduction, Rabbit Ears is a tough read.  There are drugs, violent sex, rape, swearing, assault, and painful emotional trauma. Maggie De Vries does not minimize the horror, though she does create a less horrific ending than the one that her sister sadly experienced. Kaya's very existence is so vulnerable, so fragile; it's able to splinter with a single word.
"Diane has shattered a very, very fragile thing.  And no claws, needles, or paid-for sex acts are going to piece it back together." (pg. 168)
But never deny the fragility of the whole family, finding ways to deal with that shattering, with food, magic, work, therapy, anger.  This is Kaya's story but Beth and their mom are taken along, nay, join her in it, as the significant supporting cast that they are.  Rabbit Ears is the gnawing heartache that no child or family should ever endure, but Maggie De Vries tells it as it needs to be told and she tells it very well.

May 26, 2014

Jamie's Got a Gun

Text by Gail Sidonie Sobat
Illustrated by Spyder Yardley-Jones
Great Plains Teen Fiction
978-1-926531-88-5
224 pp.
Ages 12+
May 2014

Jamie's Got a Gun which he found during a dumpster dive and he's in a dangerous state of mind.  Jamie's got an abundance of anger and it's growing.  Dangerous combination.

His sources of rage? There's Hugh the Pugh (for pugilist i.e., boxer, former), stepdad and abusive drunk who regularly beats up seventeen-year-old Jamie and his hard-working mom, Molly, and never stops demanding that Jamie get a job, any job, though Mom is determined to keep Jamie in school and pursuing his drawing. There's Blade Attaman and his school thugs who torment Jamie physically and verbally, humiliating him on a regular basis.  There's his father who left when Jamie was 4 and now lives in Chicago with his new family and provides essentially no support so Mom has to work two jobs and settle for Hugh the Pugh who doesn't work because he's collecting a pittance for a WCB claim.  Even Molly's brother, their Uncle Mac, doesn't help her out much, though he spoils his sons rotten.  And, in their rough neighbourhood, Jamie watches as Tina, a classmate from elementary school, now works the street as a hooker, supporting a drug habit that her pimp Tony probably got her into. These injustices are overwhelming to Jamie.

Personally, Jamie's got his own issues, from his dyslexia to his lack of friends and no girlfriend (though he is crushing on Tatiana Oleshenko).
"Sometimes I wish the rain could come and wash away my pathetic life." (pg. 24)
Jamie's one bright light is Candy, his thirteen-year-old sister and his hero.  He'll do anything to protect her, and that gun might be just the thing he needs to accomplish that.
"But a gun has a loud voice. I'd finally be seen and heard with a gun.  People would take Jamie Kidding seriously.  At last." (pg. 63)
The coarse starkness of Jamie's world is reflected in his artwork, courtesy of Spyder Yardley-Jones, of jagged edges and bold angles. There is no softness in his world.  Yet, when he draws Candy as a Sailor Moon-like superhero, Candy Moon, his playful side can be seen.  And when he shares his drawings of Tatiana's shoes, eyes or lips, he's seeing more than what's on the surface.

Gail Sidonie Sobat's young adult books suggest that she's got the pulse of young people and knows how they think and feel.  Gravity Journal (Great Plains, 2008), Chance to Dance for You (Great Plains, 2011) and Not With a Bang (Magpie Books, 2012) are perfect examples of how she can get into their heads and voices.  By collaborating with Spyder Yardley-Jones, Gail Sidonie Sobat has added that graphic element that adds a thousand words but moderates the text length while enriching the story.  Words on a page are only powerful when read; words with accompanying black-and-white graphics are understood and endure.  In Jamie's Got a Gun, it couldn't have been anything but a graphic novel, with illustrations documenting his experiences and feelings, as Jamie decides what he's going to do with that gun.  But, as you'll understand when you read Jamie's Got a Gun, it's not all black and white.

October 21, 2013

Home Ice Advantage

by Tom Earle
HarperCollins Canada
978-1-44340-904-9
224 pp.
Ages 8-13
September 2013

Shame, embarrassment and fear often keep us from exposing our psychological baggage and, in Tom Earle’s newest middle-grade Home Ice Advantage, it’s evident that those in the limelight are especially keen to shun its unveiling. Jake Dumont, 12, may be an outstanding centre for the North York Penguins of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, but the physical and emotional abuse he endures from his father and the vague support he gets from his fearful mother has him giving it all up one night and running away. With very limited funds and supplies, Jake heads to downtown Toronto and finds shelter in the abandoned Maple Leaf Gardens, closed in February of 1999.

But the Gardens already has a resident, an older homeless man named Scooter. Over daily meals at a local soup kitchen, an occasional donut at Tim Horton’s, and regular readings of The Toronto Star, Jake and Scooter share just enough about themselves to realize the complexity of their situations. There is no predictable outcome here when the two find the means to help each other live beyond just surviving.

While details of hockey games and plays, courtesy of teacher Tom Earle’s extensive experiences as a Triple A, college and pro hockey player, provide the background for Home Ice Advantage, it’s the vulnerabilities of the players, too often seen as athletic heroes, that give the story its layering. Underneath the brilliance of game-winning goals, historical blocks and memorable wins (sure to interest young hockey fans) are boys and men with apprehensions, desires and pride. But even deeper they have the instinct to survive. Jake and Scooter may seem to be all about the hockey but Tom Earle’s solid storytelling demonstrates that, when it all comes down to it, their heroics are off the ice, finding the means to prevail when everything is working against them.

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

Kubiw, H. (2013, November). [Review of the book Home Ice Advantage, by Tom Earle]. Quill & Quire, 79 (9): 36.

September 28, 2013

Stained


by Cheryl Rainfield
Harcourt Children's Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
978-0-547-94208-7
304 pp.
Ages 14+
Release date October 1, 2013
Reviewed from advance reading copy


Sixteen-year-old Sarah Meadows has always focused on the port-wine stain that covers the right-side of her face, determined to get the surgical treatments so that she might become "normal".  The debilitating impact she has experienced because of it has compelled her to live vicariously through her comic character, Diamond, to hide behind a curtain of hair, and to only hang out with other social outcasts. But the very day she is to start treatment, her father learns that someone has embezzled so much money from his graphic design company that there isn't enough to pay a bank loan and her surgery.

At school, Sarah has to share this unexpected news with her group of friends: Charlene who is overweight and the brunt of her father's verbal abuse; Gemma, a lesbian; and Nick, who is considered a geeky "doughboy" by others, though Sarah considers that,
"They don't care that he's kind, smart, and good natured, and sort of cute in a soft, chubby way, with messy, sandy hair that's always falling into his eyes and a quick smile. All they see is his weight and his social awkwardness." (pg. 15)
When Nick narrates a chapter, he emulates the same sentiments about Sarah, calling her beautiful and wishing she could see how amazing she is.

On the way home, a bullying incident has Brian Gormley, her dad's cute assistant, coming to her rescue, offering to help and drive her home.  Though she declines, feeling that "Something isn't right" (pg. 35), Brian grabs her, drugs her and locks her away, with a padlocked leather blindfold on.  He claims that he will help her and her parents by giving them "freedom from the pain in their lives" (pg. 84) as he has done for others.  Thus begins a tortuous imprisonment of months in which Sarah endures physical, sexual and psychological abuse at Brian's hands.  Worse is Sarah's ignorance of the efforts being made to find her, especially by Nick and her parents, with the duplicitous Brian even offering assistance.  Nick becomes relentless in pursuing every lead possible, outdoing the seemingly ineffective efforts of the police.

Throughout Sarah's imprisonment, she attempts to understand Brian's motivations, determined that she would not "let Brian's lies become my reality." (pg. 154) As she attempts to appease him, Sarah is actually becoming emotionally stronger, learning how to handle him and manipulate situations as she can. It's ironic that the very manipulation Brian accuses Sarah of instigating to derive guilt from her parents is a skill she develops courtesy of his abuse. Though he may see her as becoming weaker and submissive, Sarah continues to look for any means to save herself, recognizing that she "has to get herself out, not wait for someone to save her." (pg. 179)

Cheryl Rainfield has courageously admitted that she has drawn on her personal experiences to write Stained (see original Stained release announcement ), emphasizing the positive attributes of courage, perseverance, and self-reliance rather than on the trauma.  This becomes self-evident from the tag line for the book,
Sometimes YOU have to be your own hero.
But just as important is self-acceptance, as Sarah, Nick and her friends learn.  They might all see the "better side" of life for those who are beautiful or slender or popular, but a crash course in introspection makes them realize the superficiality of those attributes and the absence of any relationship with goodness.  The beautiful Brian Gormley is a prime example of a revolting inside to an oft admired exterior.  Sadly for Sarah, this lesson must come at the cost of her freedom.

Not an easy read, Stained will have young adult readers both cringing for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse Sarah must endure and cheering for her efforts and determination to survive, recognizing that her Stained face has only been masking, temporarily, the hero within.

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Look for posts shortly regarding Cheryl Rainfield's book launch for Stained and her take on improving body image.  In the meanwhile, check out Cheryl Rainfield's video explaining why she wrote Stained  here on YouTube.

June 27, 2013

Lily and Taylor

by Elise Moser
Groundwood Books
978-1-55498-334-6 (hc)
978-1-55498-336-0 (ePub)
224 pp.
Ages 14+
September, 2013
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy

Lily and Taylor is not for the faint of heart.  It is raw and brutal, just as is Taylor's reality.  Seventeen-year-old Taylor had been living with her older sister Tannis and her young nephew Mason when Tannis' boyfriend Bracken beats her to death in just one of his many episodes of physical abuse.  In fact, Lily and Taylor opens with Taylor witnessing her sister's autopsy, compelled to view the finality for her sister's body.

Though Taylor and Mason go to live with their Gram and her partner Douglas, and start at new schools, their old life has not been set aside.   Taylor's boyfriend Devon continues to call her, determined for her to see him.  Of course, it's not like they broke up; Taylor had just moved away.  But for Taylor, the physical space she now has away from Devon gives her an opportunity to let down some of the fear upon which their relationship is based.
She loved Devon but she'd been beginning to feel stuck with him, had begun to gaze jealously at the dork girls with no boyfriends.  The constant gnawing fear -- would he be mad if she said this, would he hate it if she wore that -- had been wearing her down. (pg.18)
Never confident about meeting new people and never having had any friends with whom she could shop or hang out, something that would make Devon angry ("You better not be lying to me." pg. 26), Taylor does eventually meet Lily, a tall lanky girl who has her own domestic secrets.  Lily lives with her mom after her parents' marriage ended.  Though her mother claims it was her father's drunkenness that was the cause, her father explains that it was after her mom's car accident that left her with a brain injury that made her volatile and unpredictable.  Sadly, Lily has been left to deal with her mother's unpredictability, and then her drinking, on her own.  But, just as Taylor notices at school, Lily is very good as deescalating conflict with lightness and humour.  Too bad that Lily sees herself through other people, even dying her bangs purple as "a sign that she had surrendered to her freak status." (pg. 44)

The brutality of Taylor's emotional, physical and sexual relationship with Devon, spiked with the profanities of their vernacular, is magnified when Devon drops by one night before Christmas and forces Taylor to go for a ride with him.  Though definitely unwanted, Lily jumps into the passenger seat and begins to chat up the driver, a stoic guy named Conor.  He drives them to cabin where Devon's controlling and violent nature has him brandishing a rifle to ensure compliance, even from Conor.  As Lily tries to find the means to escape and help Taylor, she draws on a multitude of memories to help her cope and survive.  Likewise, Taylor is rehashing all her experiences with Devon, and with Tannis, Mason and Bracken, and plotting how to help Lily.

The cycles of domestic abuse, from Tannis and Bracken, Taylor and Devon, Devon and his father, and even Lily's mom and her intermittent boyfriends, seem endless, even compounded, with Taylor and Mason.  Elise Moser makes it very clear that one cycle begets another.  The horror of these lives is derived from a normalcy of school, work, groceries, TV, and Christmas, overlain with pervasive abuse and its juxtaposition with caring.  Even Lily recognizes that Devon has Taylor so twisted about her feelings for him that she can't make rational decisions about her own safety.  Not surprising that Lily acknowledges that, "She hated them.  Devon and Connor most of all, but Taylor, too." (pg. 157)

Lily and Taylor brings together the cleverness of perspective and the confusion of the heart as they merge to become a stronger entity that can subdue, if not surmount, abuse, and it all happens because of the strength of friendship.  Brutal, honest, and hopeful, Lily and Taylor speaks for those weakened by abuse who cannot always voice their needs.  It is incumbent upon us to listen to their words.

June 18, 2013

New Cover Reveal: STAINED

On October 1, 2013, 
  STAINED 
the newest young adult novel
 from author Cheryl Rainfield 
and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
will be released.  

Cheryl Rainfield,
author of the Scars, Hunted and Parallel Visions

brings readers another compelling read

STAINED

Sometimes you have to be your own hero

The book's tag-line should be the mantra for Sarah, who is targeted for abduction because of her facial port-wine stain and must find a way to rescue herself.
  
EXCERPT
With a new book cover and a new release date, I thought it would be a great idea to share a bit more about Cheryl Rainfield's upcoming YA book, STAINED, including this excerpt (p. 2):

Today is the day I’ve been waiting for my entire life—the beginning of normal.

I reach for the latest Seventeen and flip through its glossy pages until I find the perfect face. The girl is pretty, with wide green eyes, hollow cheekbones, and full, pouty lips. But what I notice most is her smooth, unblemished skin. It’s perfect. I cut the photo out and stick it above my bed, in the last of the space. Now I can’t even see the sunlight yellow of my walls—but the confidence that shines in these faces is even brighter. And today I’m going to get so much closer to that. I don’t care how much the treatments hurt; it’ll be worth it. It can’t hurt as much as the stares and rude comments I get every day.

I know I shouldn’t let people’s ignorance get to me. Mom’s always telling me I’m beautiful; that it’s what’s inside that counts. But she’s not living in the real world. Sure, whether you’re kind or good matters. But pretty people automatically get better treatment. Ugly people get ignored ... if they’re lucky. And me, I get stares, taunts, or people going out of their way to pretend they don’t see me.

I try to think of it as fuel for my comic scripts. All heroes have to go through personal trauma before they find their true strength—and most of them feel like outsiders even after they do.
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Here's what others are saying about STAINED:

"Powerful. I raced through it, wanting to know if Sarah would find a way to escape both her captor and her self-doubts. A real nail-biter!"
- April Henry, NY Times-best selling author of The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die


"A compelling, gutting, and ultimately triumphant read. You won't want to stop turning pages -- Or blink. Or breathe. -- until you reach the very last one."

-Jennifer Brown, award-winning author of Hate List



"STAINED is dark, tense and gripping; a triumph of one girl's heart, soul and will to survive. Sarah's strength during her descent into terror kept me reading way past bedtime!"
-Laura Wiess, critically acclaimed author of Such a Pretty Girl


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VIDEOS


Today, Cheryl Rainfield uploaded a YouTube video about writing STAINED. It is a thoughtful sharing about her own experiences and the courage and strength she found to help her survive and escape abuse.
Uploaded on June 18, 2013 by Cheryl Rainfield on YouTube 




And, if you missed it in January, this is the book trailer that she uploaded before the cover and release date had been change.
Uploaded on January 21, 2013 by Cheryl Rainfield on YouTube 
at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sr0a8pw-csQ

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FREEBIES and CONTEST
To celebrate this cover reveal, Cheryl will be giving away her YA paranormal fantasy, Parallel Visions, as a free Kindle ebook on Amazon, today only.

And she'll be holding a contest on her website http://cherylrainfield.com/blog/ for a signed advanced reading copy of STAINED (old cover), gift card and great book swag (including purple wristbands with the tagline for the book).

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So time to mark your calendar:
 October 1, 2013
 for
STAINED
by Cheryl Rainfield

Young adult suspense is just a few months away

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January 29, 2013

Stained: Upcoming release from Cheryl Rainfield


On November 19, 2013, 
  STAINED 
the newest young adult novel
 from author Cheryl Rainfield 
and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
will be released.  

Cheryl Rainfield,
author of the heart-wrenching, trauma-ridden YA fiction
Scars
 Westside Books
248 pp.
Ages 14+
2010

Hunted
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
316 pp.
Ages 13+
2012 
 
Parallel Visions
A Teen Psychic Novel Book 1
Rain and Sun Press
146 pp.
Ages 13+
2012  

brings readers another compelling read

STAINED
In this heart-wrenching and suspenseful teen thriller, sixteen-year-old Sarah Meadows longs for "normal." Born with a port-wine stain covering half her face, all her life she’s been plagued by stares, giggles, bullying, and disgust. But when she’s abducted on the way home from school, Sarah is forced to uncover the courage she never knew she had, become a hero rather than a victim, and learn to look beyond her face to find the beauty and strength she has inside. It’s that—or succumb to a killer.
Sometimes you have to be your own hero
(cover tag line)

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Cheryl Rainfield writes about her upcoming book:

Like I did with SCARS and HUNTED, I drew on some of my own experiences of bullying, abuse, and trauma to write STAINED and to give it greater emotional depth. Like Sarah in STAINED, I experienced abduction, imprisonment, periods of forced starvation, mind control, and having my life threatened. And like Sarah, I tried hard to fight against my abuser, keep my own sense of self, and escape. I hope readers will see Sarah's strength and courage, and appreciate her emotional growth as she reclaims herself.
- Cheryl Rainfield -
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On January 21, 2013, Cheryl Rainfield uploaded the following book trailer for STAINED 

Published on January 21, 2013 by Cheryl Rainfield on YouTube 

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So time to mark your calendar:
 November 19, 2013
 for
STAINED
by Cheryl Rainfield

Young adult suspense is just a few months away

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February 10, 2012

The Taming

by Eric Walters and Teresa Toten
Doubleday Canada
978-0-385-67658-8
229 pp.
Ages 13-17
2012

If all the world's a stage, then high school provides the acting classes for life. Few teens have the confidence or wherewithal to be themselves; most take on roles they believe will make them popular or celebrated or conspicuous.  Not Katie.  She's happy being relatively invisible, enjoying the company of her two friends: brilliant, rich and nonconformist Lisa, and emo-boy, goth-looking Travis.  But everything changes when Katie gets the lead role in her drama class' production of  The Taming of the Shrew.  Not only does Katie enjoy the acting, but guys are starting to notice an attractive spark in her when on-stage. In fact, a dashing new student, Evan, whose familiarity with the play earns him the role of Petruchio, sees something captivating in Katie, asking her out.

The Taming's chapters alternate between Katie's voice and that of Evan, sharing different perspectives of their relationship. Living in subsidized housing with a single mother whose goal it is to capture a man, Katie has enjoyed anonymity, only sharing herself with Lisa and Travis.  But now, enjoying Evan's avid attention and her first dating experience, Katie has difficulties balancing her former life and friends with Evan's wishes.  It is evident, from Evan's entries, that he left his last school under negative circumstances, that he abhors his father, a jet-setting businessman, and that he carefully calculates every move involving Katie.  How their two lives intertwine is neither unexpected nor universal.

In a twisted contemporary version of The Taming of the Shrew, Katie is neither a shrew nor in need of being tamed.  However, Evan's knowledge of relationships is highly influenced by his parents' and his father's words and actions, whether he consciously chooses to follow them or not.  As such, although he seems to truly care for Katie, Evan's actions are focused on manipulating her to think and act according to his wishes, ultimately forcing her to make dangerous choices that threaten her sense of self.

Those readers who choose to read this book solely for its romance will not see the subtext that exists for most relationships.  Eric Walters and Teresa Toten meld their writing to bring the personal nature of any liaison with the challenges of understanding and relating to others.  Juxtaposing Shakespeare's tale of a strong woman subjugated by a suitor with Katie and Evan's contemporary dating situation, Eric Walters and Teresa Toten demonstrate that relationships through the ages may differ in context but the bases are essentially the same.  Relationships can be grounded in respect, trust and caring, or in false impressions, abuse and inequality.  The hope is that those who find themselves in superficial romances with private abuses find the strength and support to choose different roles as Katie is fortunate to do.

February 07, 2012

Charlie's Key

by Rob Mills
Orca Books
978-1-55469-872-1
254 pp.
Ages 12+
2011 

The cover art of Charlie's Key may suggest a dark and eerie, spine-tingling story but the suspense here is much more common and sadly relates to Plato's question: "Who will watch the watchmen?"

Charlie Sykes, 13, and his father, Michael, leave Fort McMurray, Alberta, for Newfoundland shortly after his father gets a troubling phone call.  A car accident with a moose (very common in Newfoundland) leaves Charlie an orphan but not before his father slips him an unfamiliar key.

Under the watchful eyes of the police, who seem to react to the Sykes name, Charlie is shunted from the hospital to "The Hollow", a juvenile facility, until a foster placement becomes available for him.  At the school, an older, nasty kid, nicknamed Flarehead, targets Charlie, physically abusing him whenever Frankie Walsh, another teen, isn't around to stand up for Charlie.  Frankie, a tough guy, takes an interest in Charlie upon learning his last name, and helps protect him in exchange for completing a reading proficiency test that Frankie repeatedly fails but needs to pass in order to be released from The Hollow. Another significant contact Charlie makes here is with Clare Dalton, a teen at the adjacent girls' rehab facility, who does some on-line research about the Sykes family.  Charlie learns of his uncle Nick, his father's brother, who has recently been released from prison where he'd been incarcerated for murder. His victim had been Brother Sullivan, one of the monks in charge of Cliffside, the orphanage at which Nick and Michael stayed after their parents' deaths in a fire.  A second murder in prison added more time to Nick's sentence.

When Frankie is released the same day that Charlie is to attend the memorial service for his father, he helps Charlie get away from the police (Sergeant Grimes, a.k.a. Tubby) and Child Services people (including his advocate, Dez) but not before Charlie meets his uncle.  Even when Frankie and his preppie friend, Gerald, take Charlie to a party at Clare's house (Clare, now out of rehab though still using Oxy (i.e., oxycodone), is a friend of Gerald's), Nick finds him and threatens him to get the key. But, it is only with several more encounters between Nick and Charlie, as well as other key characters, that the full story is revealed.

Rob Mills' writing seamlessly brings together the pathos of Charlie's situation with the coarseness of Frankie's and Nick's circumstances.  Their worlds, choked by alcoholism, intense anger and/or societal limitations may be difficult to comprehend for some, especially with the crude language used (particularly in references to women or to the abuse), but their realities are just that.  However, although Charlie's reality moves from one of naiveté and relative safety to one interconnected with Frankie and Nick, he is able to adjust well, applying his past to new experiences to help him make appropriate and ultimately self-sustaining decisions.  Beyond Rob Mills' strong characterizations is the suspenseful plot of Charlie's Key, which spends little time focusing on the mystery of the key itself but rather on the balance and merger of the past and the present.  The cliff hangers, beyond those of its setting, repeatedly lead the reader to anticipate but instead surprise, just the way a great thriller should.

December 15, 2011

Blink and Caution

by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press
978-0-7636-3983-9
342 pp.
Ages 14+
2011

Selecting a book cover is not a simple process of finding an image and a font that work.  Check out Quill & Quire's regular page, Cover to Cover, to witness just a few steps in the design process of a single cover.  That said and with the enriching reads of earlier books by Tim Wynne-Jones (see November 30, 2011 blog),  I should have known better than to hastily (and consequently erroneously) predict the story of Blink & Caution (Candlewick Press, 2011).  It is not a story of crime and violence, or of a dark place where bad things happen, or even of traffic. (Don't ask me how I got that one, but I did.)  It is a story of family.

Having left his mother and abusive stepfather for a life on the streets, Brent Conboy a.k.a. Blink has established a variety of strategies to get by without bringing attention to himself: following teens to their lockers to get fresh clothes, grabbing breakfasts from trays outside of hotel rooms and finding privacy at the Toronto Reference Library.  When he witnesses a ruse to create the impression of the abduction of Jack Niven, CEO of a high-profile mining development company, Blink carelessly involves himself by snatching Niven's Blackberry from the scene.  Relentless phone calls from Niven's daughter, whose photo captivates Blink, further entangle him in a journey, both physical and emotional, for which he is unprepared.

Caution is actually seventeen-year-old Kitty Pettigrew from the countryside of Wahnapitae.  Caution, who took to the streets after the accidental shooting death of her cherished older brother, Spence, has evolved handily into the benumbed girlfriend of drug-dealer Merlin, taking extraordinary chances as though willing death upon herself.  But, when Caution realizes the twisted nature of Merlin's "love" for her, she embarks on her own journey, away from Merlin and with a reluctant baby-step towards family.

The inevitable merging of Blink's and Caution's stories at Union Station may begin conflictingly but each unconsciously recognizes the other as an opportunity, a chance to journey together, with the possibility of some positive outcome.  Luckily, Blink and Caution are both gutsy teens with the insight that comes from lives rich in experiences, both comforting and despairing.  Together they pursue the truth behind Niven's disappearance, hopeful that it should prove lucrative for them, never guessing the true value of the wealth they will gain.

The use of second-person narrative (with Blink referred to as "you") is very rare in literature, even more so when coupled with third-person narrative (as Caution's story is told), but Tim Wynne-Jones uses this bold technique impressively, emotionally engaging the reader from several perspectives. Through Blink's and Caution's eyes, we see through "the knife-blade of your vision"(pg. 9) or the "rooming house, tall as a nightmare" (pg. 72); we experience their need for sleep, finally getting "to work on those years of rest" (pg. 173) or Blink's inner Captain Panic, always his herald; we understand Blink's reluctance to ask questions "too jittery to land near a grumpy girl" (pg. 169) and how his voice could be "just a tattered bit of white cloth" (pg. 317).

Tim Wynne-Jones' expressive writing, remarkable characters and intricate plot are perfection.  But, word of warning: read with caution, as it flows so seamlessly that it'll be read in just a blink.