This is Me, Stephanie Craig's debut novel, at first reading appears to contain many of the elements that have become tired and rather stereotypical in novels aimed at young teenagers: a protagonist whose search for identity drives the story, a dysfunctional family, a mixed bag of adults, some helpful and nurturing, others controlling and confusing, and, finally, the vicissitudes of first love.
Shelagh (pronounced Shey-la) Howard is thirteen and, as part of an English assignment sets out to produce a written portrait of herself. She starts it at a time when her life is changing, and continues to record the events of one school year. It proves an eventful year, one in which Shelagh comes to terms with her messy, demanding family, and also begins to get a sense of who she is and where she fits in. The means by which this is achieved is her involvement in a new club at her school, Match Made Before Heaven, which pairs student visitors with residents in a local retirement home. Through the club she meets Dorothy, a gracious woman who encourages Shelagh to be herself and trust her instincts, and also Tom, a fellow student, whose real life friendship and growing affection for Shelagh enable her to see that her unrequited passion for a handsome male teacher is just a crush.
This is Me is a very busy book¨perhaps the author's comment on the nature of contemporary teen life¨with a great many subplots and characters, some of which are never fully developed or which give the impression that they are merely there to provide added drama or colour. A prime example of this occurs when Shelagh's growing relationship with Tom stalls, as he becomes cold and distant with her. Instead of this just being part of the conflicted nature of an adolescent's first experience of dating, there is a much more serious, dramatic reason¨Tom's father, a character we only hear about, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps this is only jarring to an adult reader, and would be accepted totally by the smart ten- and eleven-year-old girls, the book's ideal audience, who may readily identify with Shelagh.
Craig's great strength and one which causes This is Me to rise above clichT is her ear for the teenage voice, and her ability to capture it in print. She is at her best when describing the interaction between Shelagh and her friends, and in her delineation of Shelagh herself, capturing effortlessly the naivety, the longings, and thoughts of a thirteen year old. If she can curb a tendency towards melodrama her future work will be very interesting.
Gillian Chan is a writer whose latest book is The Carved Box published by Kids Can Press.