The School of Life
- Mariko Tamaki (Author) and Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator)
Skim. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Edeet Ravel (Author)
The Saver. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Anne Laurel Carter (Author)
The Shepherd's Granddaughter. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter
Many will remember The Sound of Music’s "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" or Janis Ian’s "At Seventeen," both of which address that point of identity formation when youthful resilience is vigorously tested. That testing is narrated through diverse protagonists in a trio of recent offerings from Groundwood Books, primarily aimed at a female readership in their mid-to-late teens, yet avoiding many of the clichés associated with girl-friendly teen fiction.
Carter tells the story of Amani, a Palestinian girl, from her childhood discovery that she wants to be a shepherd like her grandfather, to the point in her teens when her family’s land is threatened by Israeli settlement. The sympathies of the novel are consistently apparent, yet its strong polemical element never overwhelms its more general human interest elements. The story balances an economical style with a well paced presentation of Amani’s growth in body and in perspective, her discovery of her gender and its implications for her aspirations, and her discovery of her skills, both as a shepherd and as a student. We gradually meet her family, and through them a wider world of ancient cultural traditions and modern technological gadgets, of various approaches to faith and politics. Ultimately, even after witnessing the destruction of her home and her grandfather’s orchards, after seeing her father arrested, she and her family realize that even among their perceived enemies there are people who will help, and she enters into a tentative friendship with a settler boy around her own age. The ending leaves open whether she will persist in rebuilding flock and farm, or whether she will go to university, or whether she will work both options into her future.
The Saver introduces Fern, whose impoverished life with her mother, a cleaning woman, in Montréal is changed with her mother’s sudden death. Fern is internally sensitive; she reads, tends to her beloved cat, and writes a journal where she addresses an imaginary friend, an alien girl named Xanoth who inhabits an idyllic world. Externally, Fern is tough, so tough she fears and suspects most other people, and so is determined to continue to survive on her own, without intervention from social services. For a while she is convinced she can do this with only a little money saved by her mother, by balancing the sorts of jobs that provide the basic necessities of life: custodial work in apartment buildings and kitchen work in restaurants. Her youth becomes apparent as she realizes that people’s willingness to employ her often means they feel they can take advantage of her, knowing she will not report them and draw attention to herself, and she comes dangerously close to a life where she might drift and fall into a world of substance abuse and other risky behaviour. Only her eventual realization of truths about her mother’s life, and that she has to come to trust other people enough to complain to them, and to let them into her life, enable her to envision a future where both integrity and independence seem more compatible.
Next to the predicaments of Amani and Fern, the schoolgirl lives of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a.k.a. Skim, and her friends might seem trivial, and yet their growing pains are probably closer to those of the audience likely to read any or all of these books. Skim is a graphic novel wherein the collaboration of author and illustrator is truly symbiotic: the expressionistic fluidity of the black and white illustrations serves the purpose of pages of prose, so that the laconic conversation of these girls and Skim’s almost equally economical and intermittent diary entries ring true. There is little plot to speak of: the setting is an urban private girls’ school in 1993 (interestingly pre-internet/cellphone culture), and the protagonist is an outsider to the popular clique of slim conventionally "attractive" mostly blonde girls: a self-styled Goth Wiccan who is also Japanese-Canadian and has weight issues. The boyfriend of one of the popular girls, Katie, kills himself after breaking up with her. Katie’s conflicted approach to grieving draws her into a friendship with Skim that puts her at odds with her group, as Skim is drifting from her own best friend and also developing a crush on an eccentric female teacher. Yet the point is hardly how all of this will work out, and arguably none of it does: this story is about living in the moments of wrenching transition, the dizzying pendulum swings from despair to exhilaration, the intense body consciousness, the conflicting need to belong and desire to resist.
Where all three novels excel is in letting details suggest rather than in relying on excesses of prose to describe: a bunch of dried flowers, a mattress on a dusty floor, an incense burner. Hence, the flaws and strengths of their protagonists are never overwhelming; they remain relatable to young readers in their vulnerability and passion and emerging sense of self. However, both Carter and Ravel leave their teen girls at a moment when optimism seems merited; the conclusion of Skim is much more ambiguous, and it might only be the older reader, for whom the teen years are fully and finally in the past, who will realize that the pang can end, or who will experience the full poignancy of this remarkably subtle and astute dissection of the tumultuous process of self-discovery.
- Sage and Silly by Nicholas Brown-Considine
Books reviewed: Down by Jim Long's Stage: Rhymes for Children and Young Fish by Pam Hall and Al Pittman, Messengers of Rain and Other Poems for Latin America by Claudia M. Lee and Rafael Yockteng, The Night Walker by Martin Springett and Richard Thompson, and Two Shoes, Blue Shoes, New Shoes! by Sally Fitz-Gibbon and Farida Zaman
- Fairy Tales and Tellers by Sarika P. Bose
Books reviewed: Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life by Lilian Brøgger, Tiina Nunnally, and Hjørdis Varmer and The Nutcracker by Karen Kain and Rajka Kupesic
- Like Life Itself by Judy Brown
Books reviewed: The Crack in the Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories by Joan Bodger, The Forest Family by Joan Bodger, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North by Peter Sis, and Out of the Everywhere: New Tales for Canada by Jan Andrews
- Small Transformations by Hilary Turner
Books reviewed: The Orphan Boy by Tolowa M. Mollel, A Wizard in Love by Mireille Levert, and Pounce De Leon by Tim Wynne-Jones
- Disorders and Early Sorrow by Hilary Turner
Books reviewed: Chance and the Butterfly by Maggie de Vries, Edge by Diane Tullson, and Jeannie and the Gentle Giants by Luanne Armstrong
MLA: Baxter, Gisèle M. The School of Life. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 133 - 134)
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