With their large trade paperback format and striking covers, the books in HarperCollins Canada's new imprint HarperTrophy Canada are immediately appealing. Two of the books, multi-award winner Monica Hughes' The Maze, and Tribes, from Arthur Slade, last year's winner of the Governor General's Award for children's literature, are about teenage outcasts.
Tribes, although perhaps the more quirky, is also the more conventional tale, being firmly based in the concrete reality of Groverly High in Saskatoon. The quirkiness is to be found in Slade's oddball, main character, teenager Percy Mountmount Jr., who has adopted the persona and occupation of his father, a cultural anthropologist, and sees himself as being on a mission to record the habits and structures of the various "tribes"¨the Jocks or the Lipstick/Hairspray tribe for example¨who exist within his school. With his ever-present notebook, stilted, pseudo-scientific way of speaking, Percy does his best to insulate himself from normal highschool life, even rejecting his feelings for Elissa, the girl who does her best to break through to him. The reasons for Percy's behaviour are gradually revealed and it is a measure of Slade's skill as a writer that, at the same time the reader laughs at Percy's greater excesses, tears are never far away. The twist and that which spurs the tale along is a little obvious; a smart reader will clue in fairly early, and this is more the fault of the publisher than the writer, as the back cover synopsis gives far too much away.
The protagonist, equally isolated from mainstream teenage life, in Hughes' The Maze, is Andrea Austin whose odd clothing, dictated by her austere father, and her too obvious cleverness, make her a target for a group of girl bullies at her new high school. Already lonely and emotionally fragile in the aftermath of her parent's divorce, Andrea is adrift until she finds a mysterious box, with a maze-like design on its lid, in a strange curio store. The box proves to be the entry into another world controlled by the mind. When Andrea is swarmed by her tormentors, her fear and their anger trap the two, most dangerous ones, Crystal and Sabrina, in the world of the maze. At first, Andrea is relieved as the bullying stops, but soon she finds herself the focus of police questioning into the apparent disappearance of the two girls. She comes to realize that she must free them from the maze and the latter half of the book is given over to this, and to the changes which occur in Andrea as a result of her efforts and as she comes into her own.
The maze itself is controlled by the thoughts and feelings of those within in it, and this device works beautifully to allow Hughes to explore not only Andrea's feelings, but also to give insight into the mind of Crystal, showing what motivates her aggressive behaviour, without ever condoning it. The whole quest, with its surprises is engrossing, and cleverly reflects the events of the real world. Hughes' subtle writing falters only towards the dTnouement, where she veers a little too much towards the facile. Andrea's problems are solved too neatly: She learns to stand up to her father, manages to establish contact with her mother, and gains almost instant acceptance at the school, a milieu which had initially been so indifferent to her plight. In particular, the rapprochement, but not friendship, reached between Andrea and her main tormentor, Crystal, may strike the reader as too easy arrived at.
Arthur Slade and Monica Hughes share a wonderful eye for the minutiae of high school life and the skill with which to reproduce this on the page. Hughes has the subtle cruelty of girls down pat, and, while Slade's focus is broader, his portraits of the various "types" will cause his readers to give a little shudder of recognition. If all the books in the new HarperTrophy Canada imprint attain the high standard of these two, adolescent readers will be very well served.
Gillian Chan is a children's writer and reviewer whose latest book is A Foreign Field (Kids Can Press).