Deborah Ellis' The Breadwinner, Linda Holeman's Raspberry House Blues, and Janet McNaughton's The Secret under My Skin were the top three favourites of the 25 students participating in this year's Red Maple Book Awards in the downtown Toronto school where I teach. Students regularly visited the school library to share their opinions and in my grade 8 English classes they wrote enthusiastically and at length about the books in their reading response journals.
The students' choices for best book were fairly evenly divided between these three titles. The Secret Under My Skin is the most complex of the 10 Red Maple books, requiring readers to place themselves in the year 2368. In the 22nd century a grave environmental disaster has taken place, causing the downfall of democracy and the faltering of civilization. Gradually, during the 23rd century, the government has tried to rebuild and recover some scientific knowledge. But a "technocaust" takes place, engineered by the government to keep absolute power. "Techies" are blamed for the environmental disaster and killed or sent to concentration camps.
All of these facts are secrets, unknown to the main character, thriteen-year-old Blay Raytee, a homeless orphan. Blay's early life is spent scavenging landfill sites to survive but she is taken care of by a young woman who teaches her to read and eventually dies so that Blay may live. Chosen to assist a bio-indicator (someone who monitors the environment) because of her ability to read, Blay comes to realize that the government has been telling lies and little is as it seems. Her involvement in the tutoring of the young bio-indicator Marrella gives her a life far more luxurious than she has ever known¨ a life where soap, shampoo and real (as opposed to processed) food are common. Blay is more talented than Marrella but she hides her gifts to ensure Marrella's success and in the meantime discovers her own true identity and the meaning of the subcutaneous micro-dot that has been implanted under her skin.
Mysteries and secrets abound in this vision of the future and although the vision is bleak in places, the overall tone is one of hope as small factions such as weavers' guilds work to restore democracy. McNaughton imbues both plot and characters with integrity and depth and never talks down to her readers and this, I believe, is the reason so many of my students liked this complex story. My only reservation is that the ending comes too quickly with loose ends tied up too neatly. But in the words of one of my students the story is "enthralling" and one which I believe will challenge readers both now and in years to come.
Linda Holman's Raspberry House Blues was the favourite with students who like real-life relationship stories laced with humour. When the mother of 15-year-old Poppy tells her she is planning a summer trip to Greece with her boyfriend, leaving Poppy with an aunt,
Poppy decides to take her savings and fly to Winnipeg to spend the summer with her father and step-mother. Poppy is adopted and intends to spend her time relaxing and finding her birth mother who, she is convinced, lives in Winnipeg. But Poppy's father and stepmother Calypso have other ideas. Calypso has a young son, Sandeep, and is expecting her second child imminently so Poppy is expected to baby-sit and help with chores. Humour surfaces within this non-traditional household. The family is vegetarian, has no CD player, cable TV or shower, and displays quirky ideas about toilet training. As Poppy says, "This raspberry house was a madhouse. Rivers of pee. No food fit for human consumption. No clothes hangers. And cats. Cats everywhere." None of this, however, deters her from her search for her birth mother, who, she believes, is an eccentric former actress who lives close by.
Told in the first person, Poppy's voice is believable and engaging and hooks young readers into her scatter-brained world. Although lighter in tone than Holeman's earlier books, she has once again created memorable characters and although the ending is not as Poppy had envisioned, the story is resolved in a satisfying and realistic way.
When I introduced the Red Maple books to several classes of 12-and 13-year-old students, Deborah Ellis' The Breadwinner was the one most immediately and eagerly requested, and often as not (somewhat to my surprise) by boys. Readers were caught up in the story of Parvana, an 11 year-old girl living under the rule of the repressive Taliban in modern day Afghanistan. In this society women are forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied by a man, so when Parvana's father is mysteriously taken away, her family is desolate. The family has already lost their jobs, their home and most of their possessions so Parvana is disguised as a boy and sent out into the streets to sell whatever few belongings they have left for food. She finds a friend, another girl disguised as she is. Details are harrowing as the girls resort to digging up bones in graveyards to sell.
This is a timely, disturbing subject and my only reservation is that the book seems aimed at a younger audience than the subject matter warrants. I would have liked more depth of character and story development. However many of my students disagreed. As Calina, a 13 year-old grade 8 student wrote, "I voted for The Brea winner for two reasons. One, because the royalties from the book go to help women in Afghanistan which is a great cause that needs and deserves monetary support, and secondly because the story is so captivating and full of emotion. The author pulled me into Parvana's story right from the first sentence which many authors aren't capable of doing."
It may be a coincidence but these three books all have strong female characters¨one of the many characteristics I look for when choosing books for young readers. I applaud the authors of all of the Red Maple books which show so well the healthy state of writing for young adolescents in Canada. Long may it continue. ˛
Julie Glazier is a teacher with the Toronto Board of Education.