Tag Archives: Canadian books

Odd Ball by Arthur John Stewart

Odd Ball is a new book set in my hometown, Victoria BC.  It’s actually set in a real school – Central Middle School – though Stewart does change the school’s age range from grades 6-8 to 7-9, and presumably lots of other details as well.

So I was bound to read it at some point, despite the tragically Canadian cover.  I picked it up now because it has just been nominated for the Victoria Book Prize (in the children’s category).  Seeing as I had already read and enjoyed last year’s Death Benefits, and I was still looking for a good YA book to put in my teacher newsletter, I picked up Odd Ball over the weekend.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read, but quite quirky, and I caught myself chuckling out loud more than once.  It reminds me most of Gordon Korman’s Schooled (a fantastic novel, as so many of his are) or Origami Yoda.  But it isn’t a rip-off: it’s got a character all of its own.  Like the two books above, it is told by many characters, particularly three middle school students: Kevin (the “coolest” geek of the school who refuses to accept this label because he can talk to girls unlike real geeks); Stephanie (a girl concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere of her school); and Paula (who is getting deeper and deeper into trouble at home and at school).  Other chapters are descriptions of past or present events by an omniscient narrator, and contributions by Victor, a first-year university student and former Latvian.

The plot really centres around Jobbi, a recent immigrant from Latvia who is target number one for bullies at Central Middle School.  While most students ignore or mock Jobbi and his thick accent, Stephanie and Kevin find something special in this kind and mysteriously insightful boy.  Unconsciously and effortlessly, Jobbi demonstrates that he might just have the abilities to solve the school’s social problems and bring the student body together.  It takes Stephanie, Kevin, a school dance, a trip to Latvia, some fancy skating, a sarcastic fortune-telling ball, and Jobbi’s unique sixth sense for matchmaking, but they make it happen.

As with Schooled and Origami Yoda it was fun learning about a very quirky character through the eyes of other people.  The Baltic connection reminded me of Holes, particularly the way problems and solutions were passed down through the generations.  Stewart also includes some good hockey scenes – you can tell he loves the game (though I can’t think of any middle school that actually has a team).  And the themes of bullying and gangs were handled quite well – the stakes were real and worrisome.  Occasionally there was a hint of a lesson-of-the-week kind of voice, particularly from the do-gooder Stephanie, but it didn’t harm the story in any serious way.  Overall, I thought it was unexpectedly delightful and I’m looking forward to recommending it, particularly to teachers.

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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction

The Nine Lives of Travis Keating by Jill MacLean

This is another old(er) book (2009) – and a winner of multiple awards.  I picked it up to see if I could recommend it to a teacher, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  As you can tell by the rather unappealing cover, it is indeed a Canadian book.  Set in Newfoundland, it’s about twelve-year-old Travis whose mother has died, and who is having trouble dealing with the loss.  He and his father have moved to a tiny community on the coast of Newfoundland, and things are not going well for Travis.  The local bully Hud calls Travis a “townie” and makes him a target for a surprising level of violence.  Ostracized by any potential friends, Travis is completely isolated until he discovers a colony of starving feral cats.  Against his own better judgment, Travis begins to feed and name them, until soon he’s responsible for their survival.  As the cats become more important to Travis, he begins reaching out and soon has connected with two other misfits his age – Hector and Prinny.  Eventually other community members are brought onside, like charming but grumpy Old Abe who has a fierce dog and a threatening shotgun, but rather a soft heart.  In the end, Travis not only saves his cats, but earns himself a place in the community and creates a home.

I can see why this book won all the awards – it was charming and well written, and Travis is a lovely character – sensitive, but tough at the same time. It also manages to be bleak and Canadian, while still uplifting and fun.  Nevertheless, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids would enjoy this book.  As a 10 or 12 year old, I might have… but then I was a very keen reader and liked reading about real life kids and their struggles.  What I wonder is how many boys – or what kind of boys – would like this book?  In my experience I mostly meet boys and their adults looking for action/adventure or magic/sci fi – or straight nonfiction.  I hope there is a huge contingent of boys out there who are interested in reading about smart, sensitive boys and their real life problems.  I’d like to meet some of them.

My question links to a larger question I have that eats away at my subconsious, and my integrity as a bookseller.  Us adults read, write, and sell these books for kids – but do we really know what kids like?  Do we actually like the same things?  I mean, obviously there is a lot of overlap a lot of the time (Hunger Games or Harry Potter spring to mind)… but how many books are produced each year that won’t appeal to very many kids at all?  How many of those end up being my favourites, or ones that I recommend a lot?  I try to keep in mind all the times that I see kids in the section enthusing over something I’ve loved; or all the conversations I’ve had about books with kids who’ve liked the same things as me; or the fact that adults’ taste in books is also incredibly diverse.  Surely there are men who enjoy reading books about smart, sensitive men and their real life problems?  Surely they must have needed something to read as children?  Hopefully they find this one – it will fit the bill perfectly.

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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction