Review: Ebb and Flow

Heather Smith
Kids Can Press, 2018

Twelve-year-old Jett has had a difficult year. A series of bad decisions has led to serious consequences, and Jett is spending the summer with his grandmother while his mother figures out what to do. A summer of reflection, however, with a good listener and a healing ocean leads Jett to an admission of his actions and a will to change.

It’s unusual to read a book told from the perspective of a bully — especially when the bully himself is a victim of another, bigger bully. What I especially admired about this verse novel is the way it uses stories as a form of both teaching and healing. Grandma tells stories about herself to create a safe space, and Jett in turn uses storytelling to reveal — slowly, carefully — what happened with Junior (his friend/enemy) and Alf (a mentally challenged man Jett has befriended). His grandmother’s unconditional love and empathy help Jett wrestle with his uncomfortable emotions and make a plan to atone for his actions. The free verse has some lovely musical lines, and readers who enjoy poetry will find numerous symbols and motifs to trace, enhancing the narrative.

Ebb & Flow is a warmhearted, compassionately observed novel that demonstrates that redemption is a quality we can achieve for ourselves. As our culture grows more aware of difference and vulnerability, this book offers readers a rewarding perspective on simple kindness.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

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Review: Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles

by Shari Green
Pajama Press, 2016

rootbeerRoot Beer Candy and Other Miracles is a gentle verse novel for middle-grade readers. Bailey, the sensitive, perceptive narrator, is living on a West Coast island with her little brother and her estranged grandmother for the summer while her parents try to repair their marriage. She soon meets Jasper, a man who was once a village leader but is now an outsider, and Daniel, a boy with a camera and a secret. One day Jasper locks eyes with Bailey as he utters one of his prophecies. His words set the villagers gossiping and push Bailey to search for miracles.

Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles tackles some serious problems common among kids today. Its resolution is gentle and hopeful, but also realistic. When Bailey asks for help, people — even people she believes dislike her — come to her aid. From the climactic event Bailey discovers personal resilience and the value of expressing her feelings and her fears. Not everything can be fixed, but sharing a problem with someone who loves us makes it easier to bear. This is a message middle-graders cannot hear too often.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s an excellent choice for thoughtful middle-grade readers and would make a valuable addition to a school or classroom library. It’s also a fine complement to the verse novels of K.A. Holt, and a stepping stone to the work of authors like Sonya Sones, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Martine Leavitt. Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles is also a physically beautiful book, generously designed and appealing in the hand. Watch for this one!

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2016.

 

 

Review: Capricious

by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers, 2014

capriciouscoverOne who is capricious is given to changing mood or behaviour frequently and rapidly; capriciousness may also refer to the impossible, that which is based in fancy or fantasy. In Capricious, sequel to 2013’s outstanding Audacious, Gabrielle Prendergast uses the verse-novel form to explore both senses of capriciousness and the consequence of being so.

After volatile experiences with both the law and the court of public opinion, Ella (formerly Raphaelle) is a subdued but still fiercely independent Grade 11 girl. Her life is as complex as ever. She’s intimately involved with one boy while considering dating another. As a condition of her return to school, she’s attempting to maintain a truce with a group of mean girls. And she’s worried her little sister Kayli is trying to grow up too fast. Add to that her persistent questions about life’s bigger issues — religion, morality, freedom, honour: for all the flightiness the title suggests, Ella is contemplating deep and serious matters.

Overall, I enjoyed Capricious. Characters we met in Audacious are back, with more developed roles in the story. Ella’s past actions continue to have consequences, some of them cruel, yet Ella’s responses are generally thoughtful and consistently authentic. I like that Ella stands firm in her individuality and owns both her vulnerability and her non-conformity. I also like the passages about Ella’s maturing artistic talent, expressed in the sketching and displaying of various people’s hands. Finally, I enjoyed the variety of poetic techniques and forms the author has used. I found this novel immensely readable and rewarding. I did, however, feel the novel stands on its own imperfectly. It can be read on its own, of course, but to understand Ella’s insecurities and idiosyncrasies fully, readers really need to know her trajectory from the previous book.

Capricious ends optimistically, if not entirely happily, and acknowledges the ongoing difficulty of realizing one’s true self. There is space for another volume in this series, and I hope the author is working on a third book about Ella. Capricious could make an excellent independent study text for any high school reader who enjoys poetry, and it should be very popular in the teen section of public libraries.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, April 2014.

Review: Audacious

by Gabrielle Prendergast
Orca Book Publishers, 2013

AudaciousHaving left trouble behind and looking to make a fresh start, Ella — formerly Raphaelle — reinvents herself as she arrives in a prairie city. But she can’t make herself too plain: she is, after all, an artist. When she meets Samir, a Muslim boy, art and trouble come together again. Ella must grapple with what it means to be forbidden, to be authentic, to be audacious — even if it means losing almost everything she’s come to value.

Audacious is a well-crafted verse novel. Some of the best-known book in this genre include Ellen Hopkins’ Crank (which follows a teen girl addicted to methamphetamine) and Sonya Sones’s books Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, among others. (For those interested in exploring the genre, I’d also recommend Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy and Martine Leavitt’s stunning 2012 novel My Book of Life by Angel.) Audacious stands up well against the best representatives of the genre. The narrative is thoughtfully structured, and the verse form allows the author to engage in more word play and ambiguity than is typical in a prose novel.

I really liked Audacious. It’s smart, funny, clever, and bold. Ella is a quirky, appealing character with a complicated back story and realistic, identifiable problems. I found it a pleasure to get to know her and to understand her art and artistry. While there are many strands to Ella’s story, the main plot involves a piece of Ella’s artwork. Ella creates a photo montage organized around the word audacious and featuring a problematic image at the centre. When her art is challenged, Ella has to make difficult decisions about her values and principles, where she is willing to compromise and where she must stay true to herself. Her decisions affect her boyfriend, her teachers, her peers, and her family as well as herself, and force her to examine issues she’s run away from in the past. We see real growth in Ella, but she remains a resistant creator, not ready to make nice quite yet.

I strongly recommend Audacious for school and classroom libraries. It explores important, highly topical themes in an intelligent way, and never moralizes or patronizes. Some readers may need to know that the central plot involves a controversial word (and image); the “forbidden” word appears in the text several times in acrostics, for readers who might not be reading closely, but other so-called bad words appear with asterisks in them. This decision engages some of the central themes of the book itself and could lead to valuable discussions about censorship, appropriateness, and context.

Happily, this is not the end of Ella/Raphaelle’s story: the next volume, Capricious, has been announced. I’m looking forward to it.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, December 2013.